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Let's Interupt the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline by Empowering Our Nation's Youth

By supporting the The Youth PROMISE Act and other programs that save lives, we can give every young person the chance to reach their full potential

Matthew Albracht

Were you aware that in the United States, homicide frequently ranks as the 2nd leading cause of death for youths aged 15 to 24 years old?  Sadly, good case could be made that many of our own neighborhoods are effectively war zones.

In fact, research has shown that many youth in these communities struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder at similar levels to what’s experienced by returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans . It’s one of the great and too-often ignored tragedies of our time—and it’s happening in our own neighborhoods. 

Curiously, many wonder why kids in these communities end up getting into trouble and involved in higher levels of violence as they age. Many kids are largely fending for themselves, living through overwhelming conditions. When their family/community doesn’t have their back, it’s a psychologically logical assumption that they are going to lash out and make choices for self-preservation and protection that are not healthy.   

Collectively, we rely primarily on our police and criminal justice system to attend to these challenges, usually once they reach a boiling point. It’s not only a late stage in the game to be trying to attend to the issues, our present criminal justice system and police are also ill-equipped and rarely have significant or lasting transformative impact. Recidivism rates for kids who go through the criminal justice system and into prison are extremely high, over 65 percent return. Adding to that, we have the highest incarcerations rates in the developed world by ten-fold, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners yet only 2 perecent of its population.

These factors contribute to what many refer to as the cradle-to-prison pipeline. These kids needs are not being met, they end up in despair and then trouble, and then too often it’s off to prison. Our current inadequate support systems and lack of community safety nets plat a large role in making this their reality. We clearly have a serious strategic problem in how we are dealing with these profound challenges.

It’s time we start to invest more effectively in our youth—in education, housing, and poverty programs that feed and take care of basic needs. But we also need to focus on emotionally and psychologically supportive efforts that empower and uplift our most vulnerable kids who are psychologically traumatized—stop-gap measures to help stem the suffering and quickly re-direct youths energies in more positive directions. 

Thankfully there is a wave of innovative and transformative work happening in our communities around the nation, programs that uplift and empower our youth, steering the most at-risk away from violence and crime, towards leading fulfilling lives and becoming productive members of society. These programs focus on prevention and healing-oriented or restorative intervention practices.

Below are a few key highlighted programs that show these are not only more effective than traditional punitive approaches, they also save lives and money for communities.  (Download a printable version of this Factsheet here.)

$50 benefit for every $1 invested:
According to a recent report (pdf)on the economic benefit of evidence-based prevention programs, LifeSkills Training (LST) programs produced a $50 benefit for every $1 invested in terms of reduced corrections costs, welfare and social services burden, and drug and mental health treatment; and increased employment and tax revenue – and up to 42% reduction in physical and verbal violence.

$3 to $13 benefit for every $1 invested:

A major study (pdf) by the non-partisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that for every dollar spent on county juvenile detention systems, $1.98 of “benefits” was achieved in terms of reduced crime and costs of crime to taxpayers. By contrast, diversion and mentoring programs produced $3.36 of benefits for every dollar spent, aggression replacement training produced $10 of benefits for every dollar spent, and multi-systemic therapy produced $13 of benefits for every dollar spent.

Recidivism rates down to under 10%:

After the Longmont Community Justice Partnership (in Longmont Colorado) implemented its Community Restorative Justice Program, recidivism rates dropped (pdf) to less than 10% in its first three years.

Violence Drops by 65%:
In West Philadelphia High School, within two years of implementing a Restorative Discipline program, incidents of assault and disorderly conduct dropped by more than 65%. 

These are but a few examples. There are thousands of heroic programs at work in our communities across the nation. Most are vastly underfunded and not robust enough to adequately meet the challenges. We need to help these kids in every possible way we can, making these kinds of programs our first response to these difficulties.

The challenge of dealing with the problems of violence and crime in our communities doesn’t stem from a lack of imagination or a lack of real solutions; it’s from a lack of political will and prioritization.

For better or worse, our governments are the primary method of how we collectively organize ourselves. If we want to effect policy that reflects these more forward thinking and leading edge programs, it will require some amount of time and energy invested in pushing for the things that we, as peace supporters value. 

Our kids that live in these communities don’t have well-funded corporate lobbyists working on their behalf. But what they do have is us, if we choose to rise to the challenge. Ultimately our elected officials listen to us, their voters. If enough of us rise up and insist that we invest in new ways of dealing with these issues, they will begin to listen and shift investments accordingly. 

The Youth PROMISE Act (S. 1307 & HR 1318) is bipartisan legislation that uses community decision-making and proven programs to prevent youth violence. In our most troubled areas, this bill will reduce crime and strengthen communities. This is the kind of bill we could get behind, and it would empower our communities to tackle these issues.

This Act will interrupt the cradle-to-prison pipeline by funding, implementing, and evaluating an array of evidence-based, locally controlled youth and gang violence prevention and intervention practices. Programs will include proven violence prevention practices, such as mentoring and after-school programs, as well as some of the more innovative and systemic approaches described above—that have been shown to reduce crime more effectively and at a lower cost than incarceration. 

This bill helps ensure we are funding programs that save lives and give every young person the opportunity to meet his or her potential.

Our kids deserve nothing less. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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