Juvenile Pretrial Detention - At What Cost?

Reclaiming Futures
Sonia Ziaja J.D.
April 5, 2011

In a recent column, I compared the costs of trying teens in the juvenile justice system and trying them as adults. Some argue that trying youth in adult criminal court is cheaper than trying them in juvenile court, and I pointed to research showing that while trying kids in juvenile court may cost more money upfront, the rehabilitative approach saves money in the long run.

One of the reasons it can cost a lot to try youth in juvenile or adult court is the need to detain some teens while their cases are resolved. And there's no question that the cost of juvenile pretrial detention is enormous. This is true whether “costs” are seen in the effects on individuals and communities, or in more cynical terms of dollars and cents.

However, both of these costs go up when kids are placed in detention at adult facilities.  

Pretrial detention in an adult facility is extremely perilous to youth. Compared to their counterparts in juvenile detention, kids held in adult facilities are 36% more likely to commit suicide. And, although youth under 18 make up less than 1% of the total population in adult facilities, they comprise 21% of the victims of inmate perpetrated sexual assault. The longer youth stay in adult facilities, the greater these risks become.

The average length of time youth is held in pretrial detention remains relatively constant at just over two weeks, regardless of whether a juvenile or adult court is involved. There are some shocking outliers, however. In Baltimore, on average, kids in adult facilities wait for 5 months for a judge to make a decision. In Texas, children who cannot afford to post bail, wait for trial in solitary confinement for months to years. In some jurisdictions, juveniles in adult facilities wait 5 times as long for trial as adults held in the same place do.

Of course, as the time in detention increases, so do the monetary costs involved. The financial costs of pretrial detention in adult facilities vary depending on jurisdiction. Locked pretrial detention typically costs $100 to $300 per night per youth. Whether that detention is in a juvenile or adult facility can make a huge difference. In New York (2001), for example, it cost 15 times as much to place a juvenile in an adult facility than it did to place that child in a juvenile facility.

Placing kids in adult facilities is more expensive than holding them in juvenile pretrial detention. As I alluded to in my last column, however, the most fiscally sensible outcome is to not hold kids in detention at all.

Alternatives to detention are less costly that having kids wait in detention facilities. This is the case regardless of whether those facilities are for adults or juveniles. For example, where Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) reforms are in place, jurisdictions have significantly cut the number of juveniles in pretrial detention, the time spent in detention, and the total amount spent on pretrial detention. JDAI, of course, is meant as an alternative to juvenile, and not adult, detention. These reforms, nonetheless, illustrate the effectiveness and costs-savings of alternatives to detention.

As long as we continue to hold kids in pretrial detention, we will lose money and youth to what is effectively incarceration without conviction, for no reason. These losses increase when kids are held in adult facilities. But, we have fiscally and socially responsible alternatives to detaining children in adult jails while they wait for trial. All we need to do is implement them.

This column originally appeared on Reclaiming Futures. It is reprinted with permission.

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