In 2006 there were a total of 892 incarcerated juveniles being held in Colorado. The total number of families with children living in Colorado was approximately 580,286. To put that in perspective: If you identified 650 families with children in the White Pages and called them all, at least one of them would have a child who is currently incarcerated. If you just called 1,500 phone numbers in the White Pages and asked if they knew anyone who was incarcerated, you’d find at least one who would respond “yes.”
On the face of it, that might not seem so bad, but when you look at it from a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the numbers are horrific. Every year the state of Colorado spends $28,000 on each inmate. It spends even more on juvenile inmates, but if we use the $28,000 number Colorado spends at least $25 million a year just to hold juvenile offenders. That doesn’t count the cost of trying, sentencing, convicting, paroling and eventually re-incarcerating them.
At the 2008 rate of national re-incarceration, 142 of those juvenile prisoners will be released and eventually return to Colorado’s prisons or jails. That means that over a period of approximately 6 to 7 years, all juvenile offenders in Colorado will most likely return to prison as adults. Here’s the point: An incarcerated prisoner makes no money and, therefore, pays no taxes to help cover the expense of their incarceration. Prisoners aren’t even allowed to access the Internet so they can make money online. That means that, as taxpayers, you and I foot most of the bill.
According to a paper discussed in the September 2008 Edition of The Monthly Labor Review entitled Effect of Employer Access to Criminal History Data on the Labor Market Outcomes of Ex-Offenders and Non-Offenders (Keith Finlay, Tulane University) Males under the age of 24 who have been previously incarcerated “are less likely to be employed, have lower wages, and have lower earnings.” Former juvenile prisoners get out of jail, can’t get work because of mandatory reporting requirements or lack of education and end up going back to prison. In fact, a lack of employment opportunities is the number one reason ex-offenders return to prison. Nationally, that fact costs us $68 Billion per year.
In a nutshell–we don’t just foot the bill for a juvenile prisoner’s incarceration. We foot the bill for as long as he can’t find a job and keeps going back to prison. That might be his entire life. Employers’ perceptions about former felons are the real reason juvenile offenders can’t get back to work. In theory, incarcerated juveniles have paid their debt to society, but you can’t blame employers for being skeptical. The only way to nip this problem in the bud and get the kid a job so he’ll stop draining the public coffers is to restore employers’ confidence in each individual offender. To do that, the state needs to institute comprehensive community corrections programs that retrain, reform and certify juvenile offenders re-entering society.
Felony reporting, in many states, is mandatory and it should be. Employers who don’t know if someone has a felony conviction are more likely to discriminate based on racial and demographic biases when making a hiring decision. The only way to restore employer confidence and stop the cycle of recidivism is to balance felony reporting with ex-offender certification.