Policymakers would also do well to look closely at model correctional programs such as the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin. Mendota provides individualized mental health and behavior modification programs in a correctional setting and is run by mental health staff and funded in part by the state’s health department.
A 2012 evaluation by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that the recidivism rates of youth who completed the Mendota program were less than half that of the comparison group. A study published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency in May 2006 found that despite the Mendota Center’s substantially higher daily costs than those of typical secured juvenile corrections services, the program resulted in a shorter length of stay so the costs ended up being similar to those of secured corrections centers. Mendota also saves the state roughly $7.18 for every dollar spent by avoiding the expense of imprisoning recidivists.
In contrast, it costs approximately $2.5 million to send a child to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Policies that automatically lock children away with no hope of release are inconsistent with American values. The Obama administration has an opportunity to move our country forward on juvenile justice reform — an issue that was a priority to Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois legislature. The administration should implement meaningful juvenile justice reforms that uphold the dignity and human rights of our children and ensure that no child in our nation is deemed a throwaway person.
Jody Kent Lavy is director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.