Astute Governments Will Budget for Programs That Keep Kids Out of Justice System


TimberlakeLike most families, mine has been busy ending one financial year and beginning another. As soon as the Christmas decorations are removed, we begin collecting records for the coming tax season, reviewing last year’s expenditures and preparing for next year’s needs.

If you own a small business, you probably create a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet to reflect your current position. Wage earners sit around kitchen tables and make plans based upon past performance and future needs.

Governments go through a similar exercise, and more and more of them put their revenues and expenditures on websites for review by taxpayers. What is missing is a report of the outcomes of those expenditures.

What has this to do with the justice system? Because incarceration is such a large part of public budgets, there is growing attention to its high price tag and limited effectiveness. Many states and cities are trying to decrease costs by reducing jail and prison populations. Some speak of “reinvestment” of savings gained by closing facilities and eliminating staff.

Is justice a zero-sum game in government budgets? Must we look at past expenditures as a cap to future spending? Please don’t misunderstand — redirecting dollars spent on prisons to evidence-based alternatives is good policy, but the basic question should be directed toward outcomes for any dollar spent.

There are mountains of research pointing to better results for kids and families from alternatives to justice system involvement, and that realization by the public and government is driving significant reform. On the other hand, there are even more mountains of research about how best to prevent justice system involvement in the first place. That includes early childhood screening and services, nurse-family partnerships, evidence-based practices in child welfare interventions, adequate mental health services and substance abuse treatment, to name a few.

In Illinois, we are entering the seventh month without a budget. This does not mean that no taxpayer dollars are being spent. Court orders and partial deals between the governor and General Assembly have created exceptions for executive and legislative salaries, prison costs, state police payrolls and several other spending needs.

What is lost in this tug of war are those very services mentioned above that are most needed to keep citizens safe, communities healthy and the use of incarceration on the decline.

[Related: Youth Voices Are Central to Effort to Reauthorize JJDPA]

The federal government has reached a budget deal that has interrupted the habit of expenditures by continuing resolution and it even includes a small increase in OJJDP funding. Unfortunately, that deal was driven by the bipartisan desire to clear the public space for the presidential and legislative races. Federal government policymaking is likely to be extremely diminished before 2017.

What can be done? Maybe a little lesson from kitchen-table financial planning would be helpful: Count the number of children in the city, state or federal “family,” determine their needs for the coming year and decide what services will best meet those needs. Of course, the next step is to find the funds to pay for those services that will create the best outcomes for those needs.

In families, we know we cannot always easily pay for the needs of our children but we have to find a way — a second or third job, delaying some discretionary purchase, tightening our belts, making our financial decisions more effective. Spending the same amount of money in the same way just won’t work to meet the long-term needs of our families. In other words, reinvestment of funds saved from reduced incarceration will not meet the goals of public safety, better outcomes for kids and fiscal responsibility.

We should start by calculating how much needs to be spent to meet the needs of kids and families, to reduce the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system; and to deliver services that youth deep in the system need to succeed when they return to their homes. Then, our governments need to find a way to pay for it — just like families do at this time of year.

Because this is an election year, officeholders are making budget decisions at the same time they are running for re-election. They should be listening, and all of us should be telling them what is needed to make our communities safer and to help our youth lead productive lives.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.

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Judge George Timberlake, Ret.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice and national vice chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. He is also chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit.

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