Juvenile justice reform should focus on our communities

In the United States today, we have a problem with our prisons. We incarcerate our people at nearly six times the rate of most other industrialized nations, and yet we have higher rates of crime. 

While our crime rate has dropped substantially over the past 20 years, crime and our high level of incarceration continue to have massive social and economic costs to our nation.  According to the Pew Center on the States, state and federal spending on corrections has grown 400 percent over the past 20 years, from about $12 billion to about $60 billion.  Corrections spending is currently among the fastest growing line items in state budgets, and 1 in 8 full-time state government employees works in corrections.  Clearly we have a long way to go still, but there are methods we can use to make our communities safer while reducing incarceration, with its massive associated costs.

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The cheapest way to reduce crime is to prevent it. Evidence based prevention and intervention programs targeted at youth can stop the cycle of crime and violence before it begins. Providing youth with opportunities and hope will prevent crime, give them a much better future, and allow them to grow to their full potential in life. A bill that would support such evidence-based approaches, the bi-partisan Youth PROMISE Act, is currently before Congress as H.R. 1318, and S. 1307. This is a truly bi-partisan issue and one which evidence shows most Americans of all political persuasions support.  Considerable scientific evidence shows that approaches like those included in the Youth PROMISE Act are able to reduce crime, create fewer criminals and provide much needed opportunity. 

The Youth PROMISE Act works by engaging community stakeholders at the local level. Local elected leaders and local law enforcement will sit and work together with local teachers, students, parents, religious and nonprofit leaders, and representatives of the local health community, to choose a set of evidence based programs that are most appropriate for their community. Instead of one federally dictated program, the Youth PROMISE Act allows for a bottom up approach where local community leaders, who know their local needs and resources, would be able to determine what gets funded in their community. Local communities should use evidence-based programs and make sure they get and monitor results to show if the program is meeting its promises. They also should be able to change directions if their chosen programs are not getting the desired results. By engaging community leaders in the process and achieving buy-in before the programs ever start, those programs will be better integrated into the community as a whole and be much more effective.

The Youth PROMISE Act also creates a means to help communities track the effectiveness of their programs and the savings they yield, as well as a national structure to help other communities draw on innovative and effective ideas. It provides a resource, not a mandate.

Similar reforms have already been happening at the state level. As the Chair of the House Corrections Committee in the Texas Legislature, I led an effort to overhaul Texas’s Adult and Juvenile Corrections Systems. Between 2005 and 2010, we reduced the number of incarcerated youth from 4,700 to 1,500, saving the state about $200 Million. We did this with approaches like our Services To At-Risk Youth, or STAR, program, which provides family crisis intervention services, and our Community Youth Development program, which provides, mentoring, youth-employment, and career preparation programs. These programs can show tremendous returns. A Life Skills Training program, for example, has been calculated to yield $25.61 in benefits for every $1 invested.

And it’s not just Texas. Other state governments of every political stripe have engaged in similar efforts, including Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New York, and both Carolinas. We know that a prevention and early intervention approach can work to prevent crime. We know that a prevention and early intervention approach can save money. We know that we can put at-risk youth on a path to a better life. I call on Congress to pass the Youth PROMISE Act. 

Madden is a former Texas legislator and was instrumental in revamping the states criminal and juvenile justice systems.