Saturday, December 19, 2009

New York Can Do Better By Juvenile Offenders

Wall Street Journal opinion editorial "New York Can Do Better By Juvenile Offenders" (December 18th, 2009) neglects one potentially large channel through which crime rates are lowered. Specifically, it appears focused only of incapacitation, omitting deterrence.

What does $210,000 buy in New York State? These days, as two recent reports demonstrate, that's what it costs to lock up one child in a brutal juvenile justice system so dysfunctional that its reform-minded commissioner, Gladys Carrion, advises judges not to place children in her facilities.


We could not do worse. But 10 years of research shows that we know how to do much better—incarcerate less, and use the latest research to treat delinquents in community-based programs.

The Empire State runs one of the country's largest juvenile prison systems. At its height in 2005, it operated 31 facilities housing 2,500 children. Like many other states in the 1970s and '80s, New York responded to rising crime rates with a get-tough approach that included more punitive laws, more arrests, and more incarceration for both juveniles and adults. In an iconic moment in 1995, the state put razor wire fences around its juvenile facilities.

This approach doesn't work: Almost every boy and girl (nine out of 10 boys and four out of five girls) who leaves state custody is rearrested before the age of 28 and, even within just three years, 75% are rearrested. And the costs are jaw-dropping. This year the operating budget for the juvenile facilities will top $220 million.

It is important to note that there are two ways through which the "get-tough" approach reduces crime. The first is longer prison sentences incapacitates past offenders from committing current crimes because they are locked up for their past crime. The second is longer prison sentences deter past and prospective offenders because it is costly, insofar as it is unpleasant and undesirable, to be locked up.

In Economic Inquiry (Levitt, 1998) there is strong evidence that both deterrence and incapacitation play roles, but that deterrence plays a much larger role in preventing crimes, especially for property crimes. Additionally, in American Law and Economics Review (Katz, Levitt, Shustorovich, 2003) shows that poorer prison conditions, represented by a higher death rate among prisoners, deters crime.

The article in the Wall Street Journal completely neglects deterrence as a factor that mitigates crime rates. Even if more prison sentences and worse prison conditions increases crime rates for those who were incarcerated, which the article, without proper counterfactual, does not show, it is unclear whether this is still an effective tactic through the channel of deterrence.

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