Alternative Juvenile Delinquent Programs: Cost-Benefit Analysis

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Public programs are generally aimed at improving the overall quality of life for everyone in a given community or area. For many states, dealing with juvenile detention centers has been an ongoing issue that has warranted much debate and analysis. The Detention Alternatives Initiative (2010) was first championed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992 and has since been evaluated and implemented in some states. The initiative calls for state legislators to pass laws which include spending on various improvements for detention centers and a paradigm shift in terms of how juveniles are dealt with. While the initiative does cost money, there are societal benefits that need to be taken into account.

Details of the Initiative

Of the many proposed improvements to detention centers, the most costly ones would be having improved conditions, separate facilities from traditional reform centers and more robust mental health programs. The original report by the Detention Alternatives Initiative (2010) cited that its model of having a unique detention center is effective in detaining fewer youths; “JDAI’s model sites all reduced their detained populations substantially…The average daily populations in Multnomah and Santa Cruz counties have been reduced by 65 percent” (p. 9). The initiative also called for spending for mental health programs that are aimed at attacking the core issues that youths face: drugs and a lack of parental supervision. Money is instead spent on mentors and drug intervention programs that do not criminalize and indict youths. These programs have shown to have some efficacy in solving the youth delinquency programs. 

Cost Versus Benefit Analysis

Before evaluating the costs and benefits, it is important to utilize a formal methodology of evaluation. For instance, the Juvenile Research and Statistics Association (2002) has outlined a standardized process for evaluating any program’s efficacy. Instead of just measuring short-term benefits, the research from JDAI remarked that “A good cost-benefit analysis, however, seeks to determine the long-run costs and benefits of different program and policy alternatives” (Justice Evaluation Center, 2002, p. 10). Policy alternatives such as the JDAI initiative must then be evaluated according to a set criteria for analysis. The JRSA has outlined this as well: monetary benefits, costs, net result, alternatives and overall riskiness (Justice Evaluation Center, 2002, p. 9). Various analyses show that there is a net-positive result from alternative delinquency programs. 

The National Conference of State Legislatures published a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Juvenile Justice Programs where they outlined implications of such alternatives. The report highlighted how different processes and means for criminalization and incarceration of delinquent youths proved to save taxpayer money in the long term. In using a case study, the research found that prison costs would be reduced substantially, “in 2005, Washington was faced with a growing prison population that would necessitate the construction of three new prisons by 2030 at a cost of $750 million” (Detention Alternative Initiative, 2010, p. 4). However, the alternative approach for dealing with delinquents did in fact save billions of dollars in reform center spending from an initial investment of only forty-eight million dollars. In this case, funds were spent to help fix the problem of juvenile detention and its cost to taxpayers. In the final analysis, the investment was worth it because long-term approaches did reduce taxpayer liability for building more prisons. This same model has proved to work in other states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin (Detention Alternative Initiative, 2010). 

Such alternative approaches also save taxpayer money by reducing crime and money spent on the justice system. For instance, Peter Greenwood’s (1998) book, Diverting Children From a Life of Crime: Measuring Costs and Benefits, found that such alternative programs are effective in reducing spending through crime-aversion in predominately African-American communities. For the case in incarceration when dealing with youths, alternative programs are effective as crime is wholly reduced: “a 21 percent reduction in crime is worth the measure's cost of $5.5 billion a year [for the state of California in 1996]” (Greenwood, 1998). Clearly, alternative methods of treating delinquents with more responsive and personal care is better than incarcerating them. Falling in line with JDAI’s (2002) model of effective cost-benefit analyses, the program does fall in line with quantification of the bottom line: “If a program can reduce the future rate of offending, then benefits will flow to taxpayers who do not have to pay for the criminal justice system that would have processed those offenses” (Justice Evaluation Center, 2002, p. 9). It is clear that programs such as the one that the JDAI proposed can have lasting economic benefits in the form of reduced taxpayer spending. 

Finally, there are other societal benefits that are evident. For instance, if delinquent crime is reduced, it results in a safer environment for all members of society. If children are not robbing homes, mugging pedestrians and using violent weapons, then people can have peace of mind when going about their daily lives. With more youths being handled properly, the whole nation can enjoy a much more peaceful future. Also, another major societal benefit is the establishment of a robust process for dealing with issues like this in the future. Mainly, if a process works well and is clearly outlined, then other areas of the country with the same problem can copy the model and apply it to their own distinct circumstances. Ultimately, public programs that spend funds on juvenile youth centers are a worthy investment that can yield broader long-term benefits for society and future generations ahead.


Detention Alternative Initiative. (2010, February 1). Juvenile detention alternatives initiative a successful approach to comprehensive reform. JDAI. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from

Greenwood, P. (1998). Diverting children from a life of crime measuring costs and benefits. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND.

Justice Evaluation Center. (2002, May 1). Cost-benefit analysis for juvenile justice programs. Juvenile Research and Statistics Association. Retrieved from