Jail or Yale: The Cost is Nearly the Same

Photo courtesy of JYS

Photo courtesy of JYS

It costs nearly as much to house an inmate in a New York City jail as it does to educate a kid at an Ivy League School, according to a Washington Post article published yesterday.

New York spends $167,731 per inmate annually—about the amount parents will pay in tuition fees for four years of education in the Ivy League.  That breaks down to $460 a day.  However you slice it, the number is astounding.

Experts point the finger of blame at Rikers Island. This 400-acre island is home to 10 correctional facilities and thousands of employees. It’s expensive to run for a variety of reasons.  To read the entire Washington Post article, click here.

One alternative is to replace Rikers Island with neighborhood jails located next to courthouses. But that politically unpopular plan was foiled by opposition from residents who live near courthouses. In the meantime, the price tag for incarceration in New York jails continues to skyrocket. And the loud opposition one might expect is not there.

Martin F. Horn, a former city correction commissioner, told the Washington Post:  “My point is: Have you seen a whole lot of outcry on this? Why doesn’t anything happen?” Horn said of the $167,731 annual figure. “Because nobody cares.”

“That’s the reason we have Rikers Island,” he said. “We want these guys put away out of public view.”

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about prison.  This is city jail. The population includes people who are awaiting trial. That means New York City is spending Ivy League money not only on hardened, violent criminals, but on drug addicts and small time criminals. At least some of the inmates will be found not guilty and will be released, or the charges will be dropped.

We all should be concerned with public safety. But numbers like this beg obvious questions.  Isn’t there a better way? Why is the public OK with this kind of outlay of funds? Isn’t there a better way to spend this money?

Think about it: If New York City spent an average $167,731 a year to educate a high school student, or to re-train a laid-off laborer, or to feed, clothe and house a poor family, or to eliminate the digital divide, what would the public say?

Think of what organizations like Black Girls CODE, Girls Who Code, Hidden Genius Project, Year Up and others dedicated to STEM education could do with such abundance. How many disadvantaged youth would grow up to become computer programmers or engineers because of their experiences in groups like these? (Click on the name of the organization to go to their website and learn more about the great work that they do.)

But you can imagine the outcry—which is why the silence now is so loud.

America’s Juvenile Justice System: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

justice2David Tyrone is 15-years-old. He’s an average student, who attends school regularly, and secretly dreams of becoming an artist. David knows gang members—it’s hard to live in his neighborhood and not know them—but he doesn’t belong. He’s not sure the gang life is for him. One day after school, David accepts an invitation to ride with his friends to the mall. That evening he and his friends are arrested for joy-riding. David is sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center. Inside he’s a target. When people ask him where he’s from, his answer, “nowhere,” is never good enough. In juvenile detention, you have to be from some gang. Inside you need protection—or else. David gravitates toward the gang members from his neighborhood. They protect him. They school him. By the time he’s released from juvenile detention, David is changed. Now he’s a bona fide gang member. Now he’s got “creds” (a reputation). It’s almost certain that he’ll return to juvenile detention for some crime or another.

David Tyrone is not a real kid, but this dilemma is very real. Scenarios like this play out every day in cities across America. It’s time to ask ourselves the question: do our juvenile justice detention centers deter the proliferation of juvenile gangs and the attendant gang violence or do they inadvertently serve as recruitment centers for gangs?
As our detention centers become more crowded and violent, many offenders who were incarcerated for non-gang related offenses are drawn into gangs for protection They quickly realize that inmates/youth who are not affiliated with any gang set are easy prey for gang members from any of the different warring sets. The basic tenet of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. With the overcrowding, staff shortages and the increasing tensions between warring gang factions, more time is being spent on safety issues and less on rehabilitative efforts. Part of the problem is this: some kids simply do not belong in juvenile detention.

To really appreciate this dilemma, an at least cursory examination of the gang infrastructure is needed. Think of the gang hierarchy as an inverted triangle. At the top and larger part of the triangle are the “wanna-bees” (hangers on who are flirting with the idea of becoming a gang member) and new gang members. The second tier and second largest group are the mid-level members. The last group, which is the smallest and most dangerous, is composed of “shot callers.” Very little of consequence occurs in a gang set without the knowledge or direction of the shot callers. Unfortunately, our juvenile justice system sometimes treats these categories of youth the same. Distinguishing between the groups can mean the difference between saving a kid from a life of violence and pushing him down a treacherous path.

We can be doing a lot more than institutionalizing youth, especially the wanna-bees and new gang members. To effectively impact the issue, more attention/efforts must be focused on prevention. “At risk” youth and wanna-bees must be identified and programs instituted to steer them to more productive lifestyles. We owe it to our future to focus on creative ways to save youth, rather than lock them up. I submit that the gang issue cannot be arrested away. More than 30 years of strenuous enforcement has proven that. It must be dried up by dealing with at-risk youth before they become caught up in the gang culture.

This week attorney general Eric Holder announced fundamental changes in federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Holder made this comment during his speech:

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

Our juvenile justice system is exacerbating the problem. The big question is, do we have the resolve to devote the energy and resources to correct the problem? Or do we stand idly by and allow these misguided youth to develop into menaces to society?