Public Policy Forum Blog

A Cheaper, Better Approach to Juvenile Corrections?

Of all the contentious issues that mar the state-county relationship in Wisconsin, perhaps none rankles county leaders more than growing state charges for the cost of housing delinquent youth in state correctional institutions.

Milwaukee County's 2008 Budget includes more than $23 million to pay for kids sentenced to corrections by the courts. The State rate increased from $209 to $259 per day last July, and it will increase again to $268 this July, which means it will cost taxpayers more than $96,000 for each juvenile housed at a state facility for the entire year.

The State contends that the rate charged to counties is a reflection of the cost it incurs in running its three juvenile correctional institutions (two for males and one for females). In a prime example of perverse policy incentives, that rate actually increases more as the population decreases, as certain institutional costs are fixed and must remain relatively constant even with a lower juvenile population to support them. Hence, the reward for counties who collectively send fewer kids is a higher daily rate the following year.

For years, some Milwaukee County legislators and supervisors have argued that the State should cut costs by closing one of its institutions. One state has gone even further, apparently with some success.

Articles by the Pew Research Center and Governing Magazine describe how Missouri decided in the early 1980s to close its two juvenile corrections facilities, and to instead open and administer dozens of smaller residential treatment centers for its delinquent population. The centers provide education, job training and intensive counseling. There are now 32 operating statewide.

While the direct cost of housing and treating delinquent youth in small treatment centers versus large institutions is not necessarily reduced, Missouri cites significant indirect cost savings from lower recidivism (under 8%, as compared to more than 18% in Wisconsin per the Legislative Fiscal Bureau). Other benefits include lower rates of violence and suicides among the delinquent youth population and better education and job training outcomes.

The Missouri experience has been so successful that several other states and counties are considering or implementing similar approaches. While some tough-on-crime elected officials typically raise concerns about coddling juvenile offenders, Missouri's program has been supported by former Governor and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other conservatives.

In fact, Missouri's former head of youth services has now set up his own business to advise other states and counties looking to follow the Missouri model. He says in the Pew article that since he began this venture three years ago, "the phone hasn't stopped ringing." Perhaps corrections officials here in Wisconsin ought to find that phone number, if they haven't already.
Rob Henken