Juvenile delinquency and gang violence is a continuing problem in our society and we need to make preventing it a national priority instead of funding additional punitive measures such as increased juvenile incarceration facilities. In spite of the widespread problems of juvenile crime, juvenile gang and violence prevention is not currently reflected in our national policies. Currently in many communities there is an overreliance of school administrators on punitive and zero tolerance policies that do not yield the anticipated results of reducing delinquency.
The ACLU identified under-resourced schools as school-to-prison pipelines, pushing kids from school systems into the criminal justice system at an alarming rate due to overly harsh disciplinary policies. The students’ arrests are often of non-violent offenses such as dress code violations, disruptions in class and truancy. These disciplinary policies disproportionally affect minority children who receive much harsher penalties than their counterparts. At a middle school in Utah, two Native American boys were caught drinking cans of Dr. Pepper they took without permission from the faculty lounge. Their punishment? The boys were referred to law enforcement for “theft.” A recent report from the University of Utah Law School’s Public Policy Clinic found Native American students are four times more likely to receive a disciplinary action than white students.
The growing costs of juvenile incarceration rates in recent years has prompted policymakers evaluate other means to combat crime than imprisonment. Research shows comprehensive, evidenced-based programs for youth that focus on prevention and intervention programs greatly reduces crime and save much more than the cost when the avoided law enforcement and social welfare expenditures are considered. For the last eight years, Representative Bobby Scott, has focused on a legislative fix to reduce and prevent juvenile delinquency and violence. The Youth PROMISE (Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education) Act was recently re-introduced by Scott in the House on May 1, 2015. The bill amends the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 to establish a PROMISE Advisory Panel to assist the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to assess and develop standards and evidence-based and promising practices to prevent juvenile delinquency and gang activity. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will be funded to award grants to local governments to plan and assess evidence-based and promising practices for juvenile delinquency and criminal gang activity prevention and intervention. In addition, a national research center for proven juvenile justice practices will provide information about evidence-based practices for violence prevention and intervention.
The Youth PROMISE Act shifts our policy focus from reactive to proactive, resolving conflict before it becomes violence. Prevention is not only good policy it will save money and lives. The Youth PROMISE Act diverts at-risk youth using a proactive approach that utilizes the strengths of each individual community. It’s time to focus on how we can best support and encourage our youth through prevention rather than overzealous “zero tolerance” policies. Our youth deserve the best research driven community efforts to redirect them into nonviolent lives. With the passage of the Youth PROMISE Act, our communities will improve and our children and youth will be strengthened and supported.
Alisa Lee is a graduate of BYU Law School.