Incarcerating Youth Could Cost Taxpayers More Than $8 Billion a Year


A new report finds that the United States annually incurs estimated long-term costs of $8-to-$21 billion for incarcerating young people.

The number of youth locked up in response to juvenile offenses has declined 45 percent nationwide between 2001 and 2011, but states still rely too much on incarceration, which is the most expensive and least effective option for delinquent youth. The most recent data shows that 62 percent of incarcerated youth were confined for a nonviolent offense, and for every one white child confined, nearly three youth of color were incarcerated.

A new report by the Justice Policy Institute documents the direct, state-by-state costs to incarcerate youth and provides an estimate of the long-term costs of unnecessarily confining children in secure facilities.

A survey of state expenditures on confinement in 46 states revealed that the average cost of the most expensive confinement option was $148,767 per year. In contrast with this $408-per-day rate for incarceration, community-based programs providing individualized, wraparound services cost as little as $75 per day.

The report found that these direct incarceration costs are “just the tip of the iceberg” of the price of needlessly confining young people. Taking into account the cost to people harmed by crime and to taxpayers because of the impact of confinement on continuing recidivism when it might have otherwise ceased; the cost of lost educational opportunities; the implications for young people’s ability to work and pay taxes and their reliance on public assistance; and the cost of violent and sexual assault on confined youth, researchers estimate that the long-term costs of confinement come to between $8 and 21 billion each year.

Based on these findings, researchers recommend that policymakers shift spending from confinement to community-based options for youth offenders, and invest more in diversion and prevention.