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Research Summary:

Accurately gauging the public's support for alternative responses to juvenile offending is important, because policy makers often justify expenditures for punitive juvenile justice reforms on the basis of popular demand for tougher policies. In this study, we assess public support for both punitively and nonpunitively oriented juvenile justice policies by measuring respondents' willingness to pay for various policy proposals. We employ a methodology known as “contingent valuation” (CV) that permits the comparison of respondents' willingness to pay (WTP) for competing policy alternatives. Specifically, we compare CV-based estimates for the public's WTP for two distinctively different responses to serious juvenile crime: incarceration and rehabilitation. An additional focus of our analysis is an examination of the public's WTP for an early childhood prevention program. The analysis indicates that the public is at least as willing to pay for rehabilitation as punishment for juvenile offenders and that WTP for early childhood prevention is also substantial. Implications and future research directions are outlined. Policy Implications:

The findings suggest that lawmakers should more actively consider policies grounded in rehabilitation, and, perhaps, be slower to advocate for punitive reforms in response to public concern over high-profile juvenile crimes. Additionally, our willingness to pay findings offer encouragement to lawmakers who are uncomfortable with the recent trend toward punitive juvenile justice policies and would like to initiate more moderate reforms. Such lawmakers may be reassured that the public response to such initiatives will not be hostile. Just as importantly, reforms that emphasize leniency and rehabilitation can be justified economically as welfare-enhancing expenditures of public funds. The evidence that the public values rehabilitation more than increased incarceration should be important information to cost-conscious legislators considering how to allocate public funds. Cost-conscious legislatures may become disenchanted with punitive juvenile justice policies on economic grounds and pursue policies that place greater emphasis on rehabilitation. They may be reassured, on the basis of our findings, that the public will support this move.
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Keywords: Crime Policy; Juvenile Justice; Prevention; Public Opinion; Punishment; Rehabilitation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Between 1988 and 2006, she was on the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Law.

Publication date: November 1, 2006

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