Finding better alternatives to jail for juvenile offenders makes good sense.

When dealing with young people who break the law, the goal should never be purely punitive. Especially when dealing with nonviolent offenders, programs should be aimed at changing the course of lives and making sure that teenagers' mistakes and bad judgment don't put them on a path toward future criminal activity.

So the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative always sounded like a smart program. Turns out it makes good financial sense as well.

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A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds the initiative, says it is saving New Jersey taxpayers $16 million a year.

The juvenile initiative began operating in New Jersey in 2004, and the state is considered a national model. By allowing some convicted juveniles to serve their sentences outside institutional settings - using electronic monitoring and in-home detention - and by emphasizing job training and counseling, New Jersey has reduced the number of juveniles who are locked up in institutions. And the number of juvenile arrests has also declined, so it may be that the program has helped reduce recidivism.

The report says there are now 60 percent fewer admissions to juvenile detention facilities than there were in 2004. That's an average of 400 fewer juveniles in detention on any day. Arrests have dropped by 33 percent.

Locking up teenagers isn't just expensive. It can also have long-term negative consequences. Youths in detention lose family and social contacts and fall behind in school.

A 2003 study showed that the majority of teenagers in detention, 69 percent, were locked up for nonviolent offenses such as public disorder and drug possession. There is also a growing racial disparity in the way we detain juvenile offenders. In 1985, 43 percent of the juveniles in detention were minorities. By 2003, minority youths made up 65 percent of those in detention.

The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative is similar in tone to Gov. Chris Christie's push to expand the state's drug courts so that more nonviolent drug offenders can be offered the chance to go to rehab rather than prison. When he signed that legislation in July, Christie said "No life is disposable and every life can be redeemed, but not if we ignore them."

This is never more true than in the case of young offenders. With the right supervision and guidance, young people who end up on the wrong side of the law can be given what many of them truly need - a second chance.

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