Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States


Delinquency prevention efforts are considered by many to be crucial to the development of a consistent and comprehensive approach to the problem of youth crime and delinquency. Traditionally, evaluations have lacked empirical support of prevention programs' impact on juvenile misconduct. Today, however, a growing body of research supports the idea of delinquency prevention as both a practical and cost-effective means of reducing youth misbehavior. Even so, policymakers continue to debate the efficacy of these "front end" programs that claim to avert crime, as opposed to "get tough" sanctions that purportedly deter youth violence and delinquency.

Delinquency prevention efforts are broad based, and their impact sometimes is difficult to gauge precisely. They touch on almost every aspect of public policy that addresses children's issues, including programs traditionally associated with education, housing, law enforcement, or health and human services-related agencies. Programs that are preventive in nature can focus on children of any age. Other programs may concentrate on the parents of these children or on the communities in which they live.

Current discussions centered on juvenile crime prevention focus on several key components in an effort to define what programs are most effective in discouraging youth misbehavior. The first relates to the notion of providing a continuum of services to youth at different stages of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, providing both assistance and sanctions appropriate to individual children in individual situations. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the need for intervention may arise long before a child's initial contact with the juvenile justice system. For example, families and schools should respond immediately when a youth starts to misbehave at school or if his or her grades begin to suffer. It is hoped that immediate intervention will help remedy antisocial behaviors before they become more disruptive, criminal, or violent in nature.32 According to a recent report on State-level juvenile justice policies by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), "Research shows that youths commit the most serious delinquent acts during their teen years and early adulthood, and that the earlier a juvenile commits a violent offense, the more likely he or she will commit crimes as an adult. But other less serious infractions -- such as shoplifting, running away, staying out late, sexual promiscuity, and vandalism -- occur much earlier and frequently are predictive of future patterns of delinquent behavior."33

These immediate intervention efforts involve all of the core institutions that contribute to a youth's environment, according to a recent report by the President's Crime Prevention Council (PCPC). Efforts to curb youth violence should be inclusive of the various stakeholders living with the problems or charged with finding solutions to youth crime. "These stakeholders include families, neighborhood committees, businesses, landlords, law enforcement agencies, public and private health and human services providers, educators, and state and local government," according to the 1995 PCPC report. "Mobilizing communities -- including youth -- and developing stronger ties between community residents, service providers, and law enforcement officials have proven to be critical components of crime prevention."34

These ideas of community inclusion and a swift, appropriate response to juvenile misbehavior through a strong network of organizations, agencies, and individuals may sound appealing to those interested in a comprehensive approach to the administration of juvenile justice. However, few States or localities have the resources to tackle all aspects of youth violence and crime prevention at once. For example, a recent article from The Compiler, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority's publication, describes the challenges of providing appropriate services to the youth who need them in that State: "While there are several options available in Illinois for youthful offenders, ranging from station adjustments to incarceration at the Illinois Department of Corrections' Juvenile Division, there is no consistent range of services available to all youth in the State." According to the article, "Illinois is not alone in struggling to find the optimum combination of punishment, rehabilitation, and prevention programs that will prevent juveniles from reofending -- or even from committing a crime in the first place."35

The PCPC recommends that States and localities searching for the correct balance of services for troubled youth target their efforts based on the types of programs that currently exist in a jurisdiction, adding programs that have been shown to have a positive impact on youth misconduct. However, what population to target, when, and with what type of prevention mechanism or alternative sanction are critical planning questions for policymakers.36

What Works?

More and more research indicates that juvenile crime and delinquency prevention programs not only have a positive impact on troubled youth, but are a good investment when compared with the costs associated with the behavior of serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders. A recent literature review identified prevention programs that provide positive influences in the lives of youth who misbehave or act out. Evaluations and assessments of these programs varied in design, making a ranking or comparison of their efficacy impossible. However, OJJDP was able to identify several programs that were proven effective through empirical evaluations and several that were potentially promising based on less rigorous research designs.

Programs that consistently demonstrated positive effects on youth at risk of developing delinquent behavior include those that strengthen the institutions of school and family in the life of the youth, such as smaller class sizes in early years of education; tutoring and cooperative learning; classroom behavior management, behavioral monitoring, and reinforcement of school attendance, progress, and behavior; parent training and family counseling; and youth employment and vocational training programs.37

Programs considered promising include conflict resolution and violence prevention curriculums in schools; peer mediation; mentoring relationships; community service for delinquent youth; restrictions on the sale, purchase, and possession of guns; and intensified motorized patrol and community policing.38

Traditionally, policymakers have found it difficult to support programs that are not guaranteed to produce a definitive result -- unlike incarceration, for example -- when public concern about crime and safety is high. "In State capitols as well, it's difficult to support expenditures that might reduce crime and prison costs in years to come when voters are clamoring for action now," according to a recent article on youth crime prevention initiatives in State Legislatures magazine.39 However, research as early as a 1984 study conducted by Vanderbilt University indicates that it is worth making an investment in front-end programs. The university's analysis of various Los Angeles County delinquency prevention programs indicated that prevention saved $1.40 for every $1 invested.40

The RAND Corporation released a study in June 1996 that supported Vanderbilt University's results. The study, titled Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: Measuring the Costs and Benefits, found that programs aimed at helping juvenile offenders before they become repeat felons may be a more cost-effective approach to reducing crime than the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" sentencing laws that have become so popular in recent years.

Working under the assumption that juvenile delinquency and behavioral problems are strongly linked to criminality later in life, RAND studied programs intended to prevent or help resolve earlier youth misconduct while simultaneously avoiding the costs of adjudicating and imprisoning some offenders later. For the report, RAND researchers examined pilot programs in four selected categories and evaluated their success in deterring crime among juveniles and adults, the short- and long-term impacts of the pilot programs, and their cost effectiveness. Four kinds of programs were under consideration, including programs in which (1) child care professionals visit children under the age of 3 at home, followed by 4 years of sponsored daycare and guidance to parents to prevent abuse and neglect; (2) parents of school children beginning to show signs of aggression and behavioral problems are trained; (3) cash and other incentives are offered for disadvantaged high schoolers to complete their diplomas; and (4) high school students who have already exhibited delinquent behavior are monitored and supervised.

Relatively small programs and limited data form much of the basis of the report's comparisons, the RAND Corporation notes, but the study's findings are significant enough to warrant further, more extensive trials. The authors attempted to compensate for problems with the data by using conservative estimates and factoring in expenses for applying programs on a larger scale than previously attempted.

For purposes of comparison, the report calculated the average cost of each program per serious crime prevented, then tallied the number of serious crimes prevented per $1 million spent. Some 60 crimes were prevented annually per $1 million spent on three-strikes laws, compared with the estimated 258 crimes prevented per $1 million spent on graduation incentives and the estimated 157 crimes prevented if the same amount were invested in parent training. The report also suggested that 72 crimes could be prevented for each $1 million spent annually on supervision of delinquents. Because of its high cost, the home visits and daycare program was estimated to prevent just 11 crimes annually per $1 million spent.

The report predicted that three-strikes laws would reduce serious crime by 21 percent at a cost of $5.5 billion annually if fully implemented. Another 22-percent reduction in serious crime could theoretically be reached through graduated incentives and parent training at an additional annual cost of less than $1 billion. The programs have not been tested in combination with each other and with three-strikes laws, and the cost-efficiency analyses are based on "crude approximations," according to the authors. But the report recommended a test of the three programs -- graduated incentives, parent training, and supervision of delinquents -- in combination to see if its prediction holds up.41

Recent State Action

State initiatives indicate policymakers consider prevention efforts important components of successful juvenile justice systems. Two themes emerge when considering recent crime prevention enactments: promoting a community-based, public-/private-sector response to juvenile delinquency, often with unique sources of funding and support, and utilizing school-based programs and activities in the development and implementation of youth violence prevention initiatives.

The Illinois Violence Prevention Act of 1995 created the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority to coordinate statewide violence prevention efforts, raise funds for State and community organizations that address violence prevention in a comprehensive and collaborative manner, and provide technical assistance and training to help build the capacity of communities, organizations, and systems to develop, implement, and evaluate violence prevention initiatives.42 The act also created a Violence Prevention Fund, consisting of appropriations and grants from Federal, State, or private sources set aside specifically for violence prevention. In addition, the act established a unique funding source for violence prevention efforts -- revenue from the issuance of violence prevention license plates. Of the $40 the State charges for the license plates, $25 will be deposited into the Violence Prevention Fund. For each renewal, the State charges $27, of which $25 will be deposited into the fund.43

Comprehensive juvenile justice reform in Missouri and Oregon created tax incentives for individuals and organizations to become involved in the youth crime and delinquency prevention effort. The State of Missouri enacted the Youth Opportunities and Violence Prevention Act, which provides a tax credit for individuals and corporations that make monetary or physical contributions to public or private initiatives that establish, implement, or expand various education and employment programs for youth. Examples of these programs include those that encourage school dropouts to reenroll in school, employment and internship programs targeting youth living in poverty and high-crime areas, mentoring and role model programs, drug and alcohol abuse prevention training, conflict resolution and mediation programs, and youth outreach and counseling.44 The Oregon initiative, the First Break Program, gives tax incentives to employers that hire juveniles at risk for delinquent behavior. Youth qualified for participation are those who are certified by various community-based organizations to be prone to becoming gang involved or gang affected.45

School-based initiatives to fight delinquency have also become popular in recent legislative sessions. A Mississippi measure seeks to facilitate collaboration among schools, families, and local agencies involved in youth development activities and to provide a cost-effective response to youth misbehavior before it escalates and warrants more expensive crisis intervention. The Save Our Students (SOS) program was created to award grants to community-based organizations to provide afterschool mentoring and activities for school-aged youth. The primary goals of the SOS program are reducing juvenile crime; improving the attitudes, behavior, and academic performance of youth; and improving coordination of existing resources to provide services to youth effectively and efficiently. The statute defines specifically the requirements that qualified community-based organizations must adhere to in qualifying for funds under this State Department of Education-administered program.46

Other initiatives that focus on providing positive activities for youth have been undertaken by a number of States and localities and have shown positive results. The development and implementation of a late-night basketball program developed recently throughout the State of Maryland was associated with a 60-percent drop in drug-related crime. When funding shortages limited the recreational programs available to youth in Phoenix, Arizona, the incidence of juvenile crime decreased on evenings that activities, such as youth basketball, were available and went up on nonactivity evenings.47

Strengthening and enforcing age-old compulsory school attendance laws are other ways States are trying to prevent delinquent behavior that occurs when children skip school. A Rhode Island initiative allows parents of truant youth to be fined $50 per absent day, with a possible $500 fine and a 6-month prison term if the youth's truancy exceeds 30 school days during the academic year.

32. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Dep't of Justice, Guide for Implementing the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders 8 (James C. Howell ed., June 1995) [hereinafter Howell Guide].

33. National Conference of State Legislatures, A Legislator's Guide to Comprehensive Juvenile Justice, Interventions for Youth at Risk (1996) [hereinafter NCSL Legislator's Guide].

34. The President's Crime Prevention Council, Preventing Crime and Promoting Responsibility: 50 Programs that Help Communities Help Their Youth 4 (Sept. 1995).

35. Intervention and Prevention: What's Available?, The Compiler (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Chicago, Ill.), Summer 1996, at 14.

36. Id. at 5.

37. Howell Guide, supra note 32, at 127­128.

38. Id. at 128.

39. Ounce of Prevention, State Legislatures (National Conference of State Legislatures, Denver, Colo.), May 1995, at 14­16.

40. Id.

41. Three Strikes Laws Used Rarely; Effectiveness in Doubt, Justice Bulletin (National Criminal Justice Association, Washington, D.C.), Dec. 1996 (citing Peter Greenwood et al., The RAND Corporation, Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: Measuring Costs and Benefits (1996)).

42. 20 Ill. Rev. Stat. 4027/15 (West Supp. 1996).

43. 625 Ill. Rev. Stat. 5/3­629 (West Supp. 1996).

44. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 135.460 (Supp. 1996).

45. Or. Rev. Stat. § 315.259 (Supp. 1996).

46. Miss. Code Ann. § 37­3­85 (Supp. 1996).

47. Misunderstood Youth, Economist, Sept. 21, 1996, at 26.

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