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Privatization of youth services would save millions

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At a time when Pennsylvania faces significant budget challenges, cutting dollars often means cutting long-standing government services.

However, there are many opportunities to achieve savings without sacrifice by privatizing the delivery of state-supported children and youth services.

In fact, the privatization of Pennsylvania's delinquent youth treatment centers would save the state millions of dollars without cutting a single service.

Throughout Pennsylvania, there are seven state-run youth development centers and youth forestry camps that serve about 600 delinquent youths. These centers are funded mostly by state dollars; however, the per diem cost of treating youth in these state-run facilities is significantly higher than their privately run counterparts — close to double in some instances. Some state secure facilities are approaching $500 a day per youth.

However, private agencies, many of which are nonprofits, deliver identical care to thousands of Pennsylvania youth at a fraction of the cost of these state-run facilities.

By treating Pennsylvania's delinquent children in private youth centers, taxpayers would immediately gain upward of a 30 to 50 percent savings based on the lower service costs of the private providers. With the current state budget of $72 million for these programs, taxpayers would see a savings of more than $20 million upon the privatization of these services.

To put it simply, the current state system is designed in a way that undermines common-sense fiscal management.

Counties have — as they should — ultimate control over youth placements. Choosing to invest in private providers will create a competitive marketplace in which counties can choose from a robust continuum of services at a better cost to taxpayers.

The use of private youth centers isn't only in the best interest of Pennsylvania taxpayers, but private facilities are also in the best interest of the youth and families they serve.

Private providers have a very successful track record in delivering quality care.

In fact, private youth centers often received higher safety ratings than state-run centers, according to a 2010 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The privatization of youth centers has proven successful in several other states. Ten years ago, Florida transitioned the children in its state-run facilities into private youth centers. The results showed many positive factors that contributed to significant cost savings for Florida's Department of Children and Families, according to the Miami Herald in 2011.

Texas also embarked on privatization of its youth services and, after extensive research, published an August 2008 report finding that private providers were more effective and efficient than the state in the actual delivery of direct services to at-risk children.

Youth Services Alliance of Pennsylvania believes in right-sizing the state Youth Development Centers and Youth Forestry Camp system — not completely eliminating the system — to achieve significant cost savings in the best interest of taxpayers and children. The state system can be greatly reduced by transitioning youth to already available open spaces in private facilities.

On the heels of the Corbett administration's release of the Pennsylvania Justice Reinvestment Initiative, creating more effective ways to work with today's at-risk youth is the perfect way to invest in the reduction of criminal activity. By supporting the innovation and evidence-based services of private providers, Pennsylvania can reduce crime by making sound investments in the private sector.

At a time when we cannot afford to waste a single penny of the state budget, investing in the juvenile justice private provider community stands as the perfect option to achieve relief from today's budgetary concerns, support quality programming for youth and reduce future crime to make our communities safer.

Craig Adamson is president of Youth Service Alliance of Pennsylvania.

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