Can analytics fix a broken juvenile justice system?

Photo by Flickr user Michael Coghlan
Photo by Flickr user Michael Coghlan

“We could send a juvenile justice youth to Harvard for what we pay for incarceration, and we don't get very good outcomes.”

That was said by Gladys Carrion when she was Director of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. (She’s now Commissioner of NYC Administration for Children's Services.)

The annual cost of juvenile confinement averages $140K, more than 3.5 times more than the typical college tuition (not Harvard’s, of course.) And, ironically, one of the things a former juvenile delinquent likely won’t have to worry about is college tuition. Youth with juvenile justice involvement are 39% less likely to graduate high school and 41% more likely to enter the adult criminal justice system.

Despite a more than 40% reduction in juvenile incarceration since 2002, the United States still imprisons more juvenile delinquents, by far, than any other country. Despite steps in the right direction, many questions must still be asked and answered by juvenile justice leaders, policy makers, judges, advocates, etc.

Because here’s the startling reality about incarcerated youth:

  • More than 60% are non-violent offenders
  • They are less likely to find and/or retain employment.
  • They are more likely to suffer from mental health issues.
  • They are more likely to re-offend as juveniles.

And here’s the reality about the system that incarcerates them:

  • More than 20% of state juvenile justice systems do not consistently measure juvenile justice recidivism rates.
  • Some systems have realized recidivism rates up to 75% within 3 years of a youth being discharged from the system.
  • Minority youth are still represented at disproportionately high rates.
  • A 2013 a study found that West Virginia youth detained pending court were three times as likely to be committed to a corrections facility as youth with identical offending histories who were not detained, mirroring similar results from studies in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio.

If we know this, why aren’t states taking a more research-based and data-driven approach to addressing the problem? Fortunately, at least one is.

The Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) has approached reform differently and is realizing different outcomes.

OYA-8 questions-WillJones blog

Based on what they learned, OYA created the Youth Reformation System, which is designed to inform decisions, measure outcomes, and improve accountability. Using advanced analytics, Oregon has improved the accuracy of population forecasting, identified the placement and service interventions with the highest probability of success, and evaluated program effectiveness.

Actuarial risk and needs assessment tools that are widely used in the industry provide good information, but do not accurately assess risk of recidivism and/or violence. In discussions with a recent state Juvenile Justice leader, she stated that “we could get better accuracy from flipping a coin”. Another state leader noted that 90% of youth were assessed as being high risk. However, 75% of those kids were either charged as minors (status offenders) or with misdemeanors and, generally, those kids are not a high-risk to re-offend!

Oregon’s approach allows for the data, combined with worker discretion, to help make the best informed decision possible for a youth in the juvenile justice system. I encourage you to view a recent webinar featuring Oregon’s approach to reforming juvenile justice.

I look forward to more discussions with state and local juvenile justice agencies as they use analytics to put young people on a path towards positive outcomes, even Harvard!


About Author

Will Jones

Principal Industry Consultant

With over 21 years of human services experience, Will Jones is an expert in child welfare, juvenile justice and behavioral health services. As the Chief of Programs at Eckerd, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit child and family service organizations, Will helped the organization see substantial growth nationally in direct service work and consulting. He also served in leadership roles at three other award winning non-profit organizations. Early in his career, Will led the effort to make Orange County (FL)Youth Family Services Division the second public child welfare agency in the state to become COA accredited. He is married and a devoted husband and father to five children.


  1. Robin Jenkins on

    Nice work Will .... I know that you've learned this so I apologize for repeating. As SAS knows and works into its T.A. and business development, just having access to data is limiting. Beginning with the (perceived) end in mind is a good way to go -- what is the system we value and need? What set of resources and priorities do we believe we need and should invest in, to achieve such a system? But perhaps MOST importantly, we have to provide our leadership and middle managers the skills/competencies to co-design data systems that meet their needs, teach them how to use data generated by such systems, and design evidence-supported programs that closely align to the data and also design data systems that inform such programs. This quality improvement and assurance piece (part of "active implementation") is so underfunded, and unfunded in most state systems that I'm hoping your approach(es) with other states can make the budgetary case for better funding in these regards. Good luck in all that you're doing.

    • Robin, I hope all is well. You are exactly right. Many organizations must work diligently to develop, shape, and maintain a culture that embraces data driven and evidence informed decisions. There is much work to be done. Hope to see you soon.

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