Refocusing on Prevention of Delinquency

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The National Council on Crime and Delinquency recently reported that the number of young people incarcerated in the United States reached 53,000 last year--the highest number in the nation's history, despite a decline over the last decade in the juvenile population.

Many of these youths are placed in large, overcrowded facilities, where physical and sexual abuse and substandard correctional practices are on the rise. Educational and clinical programs in these settings are often ineffective.

The study found that young people treated in such institutions had a significantly higher rate of recidivism than those in community-based, rehabilitative programs. In a comparison between California's institutional system and Massachusetts' community-based program, the council determined that 62 percent of the former state's sample, as opposed to only 23 percent in Massachusetts, were re-incarcerated after leaving a facility.

Most states continue to operate large institutions as their primary response to juvenile crime. But many are now examining the community-based approach as an alternative, for reasons of cost as well as rehabilitation. The shift in focus from correction to prevention that underlies such changes is essential if we are to help those children most likely to become delinquents.

Today's juvenile offenders, reflecting a growing underclass, have a complex profile. They typically are poor and virtually illiterate. Chronic truants or dropouts, they possess no marketable job skills. Many are children of teenage parents, and nearly 50 percent of them have already repeated that cycle. Though years below the legal drinking age, most have serious drug and alcohol problems.

Like most states, Massachusetts has seen a dramatic increase in the number of young people coming into its youth-services system. Since 1982, the number of juveniles detained with the youth-services department while awaiting trial has doubled, from 1,500 to 3,044 in 1989. In addition, there were 835 new commitments to the department in 1989--121 more than in the preceding year. Yet these increases come at a time when the juvenile population in the state and in the nation is shrinking. In 1990, there are fewer than 500,000 juveniles in Massachusetts; in 1970, there were 750,000. Even more perplexing, juvenile arraignments on delinquency charges have also dropped significantly in the state, from 25,943 in 1980 to 18,902 in 1989.

These numbers show that something is wrong with the way that juvenile-justice systems, courts, schools, and social-service agencies are addressing the problem of delinquency.

Two primary factors explain the growing numbers of juvenile offenders. First, there is indeed a rise in serious crime among young people, fueled by the steady stream of drugs and weapons into their hands. These dangerous offenders are committed--legitimately--to juvenile-correction agencies for long-term custody or treatment.

But a second, larger group is also contributing to the increase. It consists of 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old first-time offenders who have failed at home, failed in school, and fallen through the cracks of state and community social-service agencies. These are not serious offenders, or even typical delinquents. But they are coming into the correctional system because we have ignored the warning signs among them.

Each year in Massachusetts, roughly 20,000 youths become involved with the justice system. Although many of them will not receive probation or commitment to the department, each is signaling a need for help. Studies indicate that youths at risk to offend will begin to show signs as early as 2nd or 3rd grade. School failure, child abuse and neglect, drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy may all be indicators of a future involving crime.

Waiting for "problem children" to outgrow negative behavior is a mistake--in most cases, they don't. Unless intensive community supports are developed to improve their school experiences and the quality of life in their families and neighborhoods, as many as one in four American young people--some 7 million youths--are in danger of destroying their opportunities in life.

If we want to interrupt criminal paths and reduce the number of juveniles launching criminal careers, a shift in our priorities is necessary. States must invest their money in delinquency-prevention programs--at the front end rather than the back end of problems. These efforts should be targeted at elementary-school students from poor, high-crime neighborhoods, where traditional avenues to success are blocked.

For youths appearing in court on petty larceny or trespassing charges, we should develop restitution programs or innovative alternatives to costly lockups. Young people will learn something positive from a work assignment in the community, but not from 15 days' incarceration spent rubbing shoulders with more sophisticated offenders. And--at a time when correctional resources are scarce--states will spend less money, gaining a greater return on investment.

Our department spends an average of $60,000 a year on each of its most serious offenders; much needs to be done in a short period of time to change behavior reinforced over many years. Less serious offenders are placed in group homes, at half the cost of secure facilities. For the least serious offenders, we operate day-treatment and outreach and tracking programs, which annually cost between $9,000 and $15,000 per youth. All of these programs include intensive educational and clinical components tailored to the individual.

The cost of constructing a 30-bed secure facility for juvenile offenders in Massachusetts is approximately $6 million dollars; annual operating expenses are $1.8 million. A delinquency-prevention program costs about $10,000 per year.

The efforts of youth-services departments must necessarily remain accountable for public safety. But the juvenile-justice system should join together with local schools and social-service and religious organizations to implement prevention and intervention strategies such as the following:

  • Home-builders: Dispatch workers to the homes of children who have been abused, neglected, or recently released from a juvenile-detention program. Keep workers in homes at times of high stress: early in the morning, when the children might resist leaving for school, and after school, to supervise homework and nightly curfews. The annual cost for 1 worker to supervise 1 family is $4,000, with each worker responsible for 4 to 5 families.
  • Mentors: Assign a teaching assistant or college student to work with youths who are beginning to fail in school. Mentors would serve as adult companions, helping children with homework and supervising them during after-school hours. The annual cost of 1 mentor working with 4 youngsters is $8,500. Public schools should employ students from local colleges or citizens in the community as part-time mentors.
  • Restitution: Establish a plan whereby youths are assigned a community service or job to reimburse their victims, as well as serve justice and instill a sense of accountability in the offenders. A restitution program would also introduce a young offender to the world of work.
  • Streetworkers: More and more 8- to 12-year-olds are being swept up in the excitement and status that accompany gang membership and urban violence. To counter the influence of gang leaders and reduce incidents of violence among these youngsters, hire full-time "streetworkers"--residents of the target areas who are street savvy and who want change in their neighborhood. Estimated cost is $8,000 per youth.
  • After-school employment: Arrange for local businesses to hire high-school students as paid interns to work with a designated professional and learn a particular aspect of business. This would not only expose youths to professional opportunities but also provide positive role models. These private-public ventures could be overseen by community and state agencies, and by the larger businesses.

There are many other possibilities. The important thing is to begin reaching kids sooner. We must refocus our efforts from correcting the problem after the crime to creating alternatives that prevent the crime--not only in the interest of dollars but also for the sake of lives.

Vol. 9, Issue 26, Page 32

Published in Print: March 21, 1990, as Refocusing on Prevention of Delinquency
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