“It’s About Scarcity, Stupid”: Youth Development Needs Bigger Public Investment

We all bring our own unique perspectives to the work we do. I grew up in a community where we took for granted that there was a role for a public sector in universal health care, quality education, public transit, social planning.

There is one simple truth for me, having lived and worked in communities that have struggled with deindustrialization, the loss of jobs and the loss of a tax base and having worked with juvenile departments that closed programs, shut down services and closed facilities because of the budgetary pressures.

Misery, quite simply, doesn’t love company.

Misery doesn’t love company in the communities of color who have always experienced high levels of justice system involvement and whose most significant experience with government can be a police car, the courts, juvenile detention and a youth prison. For the communities most impacted by incarceration and crime, the public sector in the form of the justice system can be a negative force in their lives.

Misery also doesn’t love company among the millions of public-sector employees who have managed through budgetary shortfalls, downsizing and the waves of cutbacks that have closed facilities, cut funding to nonprofits and reduced services for youth with the same pen stroke. The Great Recession that saw more than one million-public sector jobs vanish since 2008 has been a double-edged sword for juvenile justice reformers.

The field made some gains closing facilities and shifting reliance to more effective youth development practices because the same fiscal pressures affecting all levels of government have been at play in juvenile justice. We have had the wind at our backs, as policymakers were forced to choose between raising taxes or closing expensive buildings.

The field has forged a potent partnership with conservatives around the issues we can agree on: Get youth out of big, expensive buildings that generate poor outcomes.  Our conservatives allies have been pretty clear with us: “This is a limited partnership” around a narrow set of goals.

Rather than be obsessed with conservatives, progressives need to focus on some questions about our vision: What is the appropriate role of the public sector and government in youth justice policy, and how do we support the public infrastructure that serves these goals?

Most progressives I know support making sound investments in the kinds of services any young person or family might need: school, work, the ability to actually receive professionally delivered public services and support for nonprofits that can meet human needs in a way government can’t.

And yet we keep struggling over issues in juvenile justice reform that really shouldn’t be divisive issues amongst ourselves.

To paraphrase a line from President Bill Clinton’s political strategist, James Carville, what is driving these divides? “It’s about scarcity, stupid.”

The scarcity of public dollars to solve public problems is the cause of many fights within the juvenile justice reform constituency right now. These fights are preventing the field from being more effective because we are trapped in arguments bounded by scarcity — perceived or real — based on our own flawed thinking around “justice reinvestment.”

Scarcity means we have basically accepted that government cannot play the role it once did in juvenile justice. The vicious cycle of year after year disinvestment in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the funding streams they monitor and track means the federal government cannot play the catalytic or the oversight role it once did in juvenile justice reform. The same is true at the state and local level, where half the juvenile corrections leaders have changed in the past two years.

Scarcity means I’ve watched staff in county and state juvenile and child welfare departments struggling to get the training, the technology and the tools they need to help youth succeed and make communities safe. No advocate relying on foundation funds derived from the market should complain about “the lack of data” if we can’t support governments’ ability to collect, share and publish data. You can’t expect robust public oversight of juvenile justice systems if there are no resources to do that work.

Scarcity means state and local governments can’t find the money to update their technology, build infrastructure or pay staff to do the thoughtful, time-consuming, youth-centered work that must happen to keep most youth out of the system entirely.

Scarcity means we see fights in legislatures around what we should fund to meet youth development and public safety goals. Pitting evidence-based practices against other ways of responding to delinquency is a zero-sum game that only exists in the context of scarcity and does nothing to get youth the supports and services they need to succeed. And it is an argument that only ends up empowering the individuals that promote specific models, rather than build a youth-centered continuum.

The false notion of “justice reinvestment” as fiscal policy is something progressives dreamed up.  When we turned justice reinvestment into a rallying cry, did we really believe it was as simple as flipping a switch, and moving the money from expensive juvenile corrections facilities to the community? Did we really think that money would flow forever? Do we really think that facilities are ATM machines?

Unfortunately, there are no magic ATM machines. We do, however, live in one of the richest countries in the world.

Progressives need to focus on words other than reinvestment to support public responses to public-sector challenges. Maybe what you want is revenue enhancement? Or you could cut right to the chase, and use the three-word phrase at the heart of the issue: tax rich people. Or at least work to build a consensus that the public sector needs appropriate resources to do the things we want it to do in youth justice.

We don’t need to emulate Communist Albania. The private sector and private nonprofits will always be partners in youth justice: Private-sector and nonprofit approaches are still based off public dollars, public “goods” that come from the public sector. We should continue to reduce spending on practices that are not effective in curbing delinquency and helping young people transition to adulthood.

When people work with our youth, they should have the resources from the public sector to do their job as well as we need them to. The public sector should also help redistribute resources to build the communities that we would want any young person to grow up in.

Jason Ziedenberg is director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute

This article was originally posted on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.