Knowledge Brief: How Can We Know If Juvenile Justice Reforms Are Worth the Cost?

With governments at every level facing grim budget forecasts, policymakers need to knowas much as possible about what juvenile justice activities yield the greatest social good fora given level of spending. This is the very question benefit-cost analysis seeks to answer.This policy brief summarizes the benefit-cost analysis of a set of reforms intended tomake juvenile detention more developmentally productive: residential centers that provide youths with group-based cognitive behavior therapy. The researchers found preliminary evidence that this program may decrease recidivism rates in the 15 months following release, and that the minimal costs of the program (a few hundred dollars per youth perdetention spell) may be outweighed by the monetized benefits of reduced crime and punishment. Their hunch is that progress is most likely to come from the cumulative effectof relatively inexpensive changes like this one, each generating benefits in excess of costsand reducing recidivism incrementally.