Data Needed to Change Young People’s Lives | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Data Needed to Change Young People’s Lives

In order to solve a problem, you have to understand it fully. Just ask the state of Georgia, which used data to discover that detention wasn't working for its young people. More than half who went to a juvenile-detention center in the state offended again, and either found themselves back in juvy or in prison if they had turned 18 years old.

In short, juvenile detention was not only pricey in Georgia—close to $90,000 per child per year—but the data show it didn't work to deter youth from continuing to commit crimes. While advocates knew this, it took lawmakers a while to take notice, but once they did, they overhauled the state's juvenile-justice laws, leading to fewer kids behind bars and instead getting needed therapy or counseling, as well as cost savings for the state.

Juvenile detention in Mississippi is also much more costly than alternatives, and counties that have figured this out, like Adams, invest in other programs to save money. The majority of counties in this state, however, do not have alternatives or their own detention centers, so they waste a lot of their dollars transporting kids to and from the detention center they contract with, as well as paying that county to take care of them. If counties around the state looked at investing in alternatives to detention, they would save money in the long run.

But like Georgia, saving money takes investment—and reinvestment—at the front of reform movements. Georgia's General Assembly allocated additional money to implement reforms in 2013 as well as reinvested the money they would save from one of their reforms: not locking up kids for status offenses like being truant or running away. The investment and reinvestment of state dollars ultimately mean less kids in Georgia are locked up, and those kids who need counseling or therapy—not detention—have the opportunity to get it.

Georgia is a success story due to data collection. They had the information right in front of them, and while that data did not look good, it provided a road map and a way to make conditions better for kids across the state.

Data and dollar signs are the keys to reform, and we're missing both in Mississippi. Juvenile-detention facilities in the state are run by counties, not the State, which means that data are sparse and in some cases not there (see any Division of Youth Services annual report). With the kids locked up in each county's care, the state relinquishes responsibility for its own children.

The licensing act passed last legislative session was a necessary first step, but if that is all the state is willing to do to keep kids from entering the justice system, it is simply not enough. We cannot afford to lose another generation of Mississippians, primarily African Americans referred to youth courts around the state, to the incarceration system. Reform is going to take time, more money and data.

The tools are there; the exemplary models are there. Look to Georgia; look to Seattle, Wash.; look around. Even if comprehensive reform is years down the road, collecting data is vital to making the right policy choices. Kids' lives depend on it.

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