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The United States, incarcerates its citizens at much greater rates than any other nation in the world (Scott, 2008). Incarceration costs in the U.S. have risen to $65 billion a year (Scott, 2008). Many crimes committed by gangs and gang members cause severe harm not to individual victims but to families and whole neighborhoods as well. While the perpetrators of these crimes must be punished, it is becoming clear that lawmakers must take a proactive and preventive approach, in order to steer at-risk youth away from gangs and towards being successful productive members of our communities before a crime is committed. The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act (Youth PROMISE Act), is in response to a number of penalizing gang bills that have emphasized suppression and incarceration over prevention and intervention (Scott, 2008). In this essay I will be evaluating the Youth PROMISE Act by including a summary, background research, and a critique of this bill.

On October 16, 2007, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va) introduced the Youth PROMISE Act that supports evidenced-based practices and provides an alternative approach for lawmakers looking for effective responses to youth crime and delinquency. The purpose of the Youth PROMISE Act is to form a council which will include representatives from law enforcement, court services, schools, social service organizations, health and mental health providers and community-based organizations, including faith-based organizations. These councils will then develop comprehensive local plans to support young people and their families, while making their communities safer, reducing rates of victimization, and helping at-risk youth lead law-abiding and healthy lives, free of gangs, delinquency and violence.

The congress finds that the youth gang crime has taken a toll on a number of urban communities, and senseless acts of gang-related violence have imposed economic, social, and human costs (Library of Congress, 2008). Investment in prevention programs for children and youth will lead to a decrease in youth arrests and delinquency, and lead to a greater financial saving from an educational, economic, social, and criminal justice perspective (Library of Congress, 2008). According to congress, the quality of early childhood education programs have demonstrated to help children start school ready to learn and to reduce delinquency and criminal street gang activity risks. After-school programs that connect children to caring adults and that provide constructive activities during the peak hours between 3:00- 6:00 in the evening, have been shown to reduce delinquency and the associated costs imposed on the juvenile and criminal justice systems (Library of Congress, 2008).

The Youth PROMISE plan will take into account the cultural and linguistic needs of the community, and will use approaches that have been shown to be effective at reducing the rates of juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang activity in communities (Library of Congress, 2008). Some programs that will be provided are, youth and adolescent development training and apprenticeship programs, job placement and retention training, education, and after school programs that are between the afternoon hours of 3:00-6:00 (Library of Congress, 2008). The Act also plans to provide mentoring programs, conflict resolution skills training, sports, arts, life skills, and employment and recreation programs. Summer programs and summer recreation programs are included in the Act’s plans, as well as programs for youth who have dropped out of school or demonstrate chronic truancy.

The Act includes a variety of programs beneficial to many youth. For instance, the Act will provide training and education programs for pregnant teens and teen parents. It will also help runaway and homeless youth by providing emergency, transitional, and permanent housing assistance, such as safe shelter and housing for runaway and homeless youth (Library of Congress, 2008). For the youth who are in gangs, the Act will provide prevention and intervention and exit services such as tattoo removal, successful models of anti-gang crime outreach programs, such as street workers program, as well as other criminal street gang peacemaking activities (Library of Congress, 2008).
The Act also includes substance abuse counseling and treatment services, including harm-reduction strategies, as well as various other programs and services beneficial for youth.

According to the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the administrator is authorized to award a grant no more than $10,000,000 per year for each year of the grant period. The requirements for this grant include an application that identifies potential savings from criminal justice costs, public assistance costs, and other costs as well. It must also include the activities that will be undertaken by the grant, the outcomes from such activities, and the document must describe how the savings from investment in prevention and intervention practices will be reinvested in the continuing implementation of the PROMISE Plan. Once the administrator receives the application, an evaluation process will determine in what parts of the policy the money should be invested in.

According to Jeffrey Fagan, during the development of a youth from childhood to adulthood, the major sources of social control are the family, school, peers, and community. Delinquent behavior occurs when there are weak bonds, or attachments, to parents and school, weak commitment to educational and occupational success, and inadequate belief in the authority and moral power of the law (Fagan, 1987). Social learning concepts attribute the development of juvenile delinquency through contributions of peers and neighborhood social norms (Brenda, 1999). In disorganized communities where social controls are weak or conflicting, opportunities for exposure to criminal behavior and values exist, and youth are at a greater risk of delinquency than in other places through involvement with delinquent peers. (Brenda, 1999).

“If youths are given adequate opportunities for involvement in adequate activities, if they are able to acquire the necessary skills with a consistent reward structure, and if they are sanctioned fairly and quickly for misbehaviors, they will develop commitments to the broader society” (Brenda, 1999). Social bonding is less likely to occur in disorganized neighborhoods that lack support networks and formal and informal controls and with fewer social and economic resources. Youth who do not receive adequate support and direction from their families, do not experience success in school, are labeled as failures, and are most vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activities and violence (Brenda, 1999)

The Youth PROMISE Act has been compared to another bill called, the Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression Act (H.R. 3547). According to Steve Aos, Mama Miller, and Elizabeth Drake, the H.R 3547 is flawed because it emphasizes on punishment and incarceration over prevention and early intervention, and they believe this bill will lead to an increase in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The H.R. 3547 bill also emphasizes on penalties, including life without parole sentences, which are inappropriate for youth because based on scientific research, adolescents brain development are fundamentally different compared to adults (Aos, 2006). For this reason, Steven Aos suggests that H.R. 3547 should not apply to juvenile offenders.
Studies have shown that evidence-based practices that work with violent and seriously delinquent youth are more cost effective and produce more benefits than traditional punishing measures (Olson, 2004). There is also a growing body of research that suggest increased imprisonment could negatively impact youth who may otherwise “age out” of delinquent behavior, and consequently worsen public safety goals (Olson, 2004). A 2004 Illinois report on gang repeated rates tracked 2,500 adults prisoners released in 2000, one quarter of whom were gang members (Olson, 2004). They found that more than half (55%) of the gang members were readmitted to prisons within a two-year follow-up. A study of youth in the Arkansas Juvenile justice system found that prior incarceration was a greater predictor of crime repetition than carrying a weapon, gang membership, or poor parental relationship (Butts, 2006).

Providing education and employment services have been shown to correlate with lower crime rates. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “If, as research has found, educational failure leads to unemployment (or underemployment), and if educational failure and unemployment are related to law-violating behavior, then patterns of educational failure over time and within specific groups may help to explain patterns of delinquent behavior.” Providing education and employment services for at-risk youth to increase graduation rates, as well as wages and employment opportunities, could greatly reduce crime, benefiting both young people and society as a whole, especially young men, who are often the most impacted by the availability of well-paying jobs and who commit the majority of crimes (Howard, 2006).

Under the Youth PROMISE Act, communities facing the greatest youth gang and crime challenges will come together to develop a comprehensive plan for implementing evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies. This bill gets at the root causes of youth and gang violence before youth get into trouble rather than creating additional disciplinary approaches, that do very little to prevent youth from engaging in delinquent activity. The bill’s weakness could result from poor evaluation or assessment measures of programs which are responsible for helping communities reduce their young people’s involvement in gang activities. By ensuring that the councils of each community provide thorough assessment and evaluation measures of their programs or other resources they can prevent increased levels of gang activity. It is also important to note that the Youth PROMISE Act would not stop or hold back the current enforcement of laws. The criminal justice system will continue to arrest, convict, and incarcerate those who commit crimes, but the Youth Promise Act would provide communities with tools to effectively prevent and reduce crime before it occurs.

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