For far too many young people who get caught up in the criminal justice system, an arrest or conviction for even a minor, non-violent offense can become a one-way ticket to a shrunken future that slams the door on opportunities for the rest of their lives. Being arrested as a teen increases a person's chances of being arrested again as an adult, and teenagers sentenced to jail are more likely to be incarcerated later in life as well. Add to that the nation's harsh drug laws and stiff mandatory minimum sentencing policies and it's no wonder America locks up more of its citizens than any other country in the world.

That's why breaking the so-called the school-to-prison pipeline should be an urgent priority for lawmakers seeking to reduce the billions of dollars the nation spends on prosecuting and incarcerating juvenile offenders. But decades of tough-on-crime legislation has failed to make a dent in the problem, and it's clear a different approach is needed. The Youth Promise Act currently being considered by Congress offers an alternative that focuses instead on innovative, community-based interventions that engage and divert at-risk youngsters before they slip into a costly cycle of crime, violence and incarceration.

The bill, which has bipartisan support in both the Senate and House, would fund a range of evidence-based prevention strategies that have been shown to greatly reduce juvenile crime while saving taxpayers much more money than they cost. Among the types of interventions the legislation would support are conflict resolution and gang prevention efforts, youth job training, apprenticeships, mentoring and after-school programs, and substance abuse counseling and treatment. In addition, the act would support alternatives to youth detention and confinement programs.

These interventions are based on the concept of restorative justice, an approach that focuses on the needs of victims and offenders as well the community's stake in reducing the harm caused by juvenile crime. Instead of punishment, the goal of restorative justice is to encourage offenders to take responsibility for their actions by apologizing for the harm they have caused, making restitution and performing community service. It is based on the principle that crime and wrongdoing are offenses against individuals and communities rather than against the state and that conflicts can be resolved through a process in which all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by it and what should be done to repair the harm.

Studies have shown that restorative justice strategies that foster dialogue between victim and offender result in the highest rates of satisfaction for victims and accountability for offenders. In Baltimore, for example, the Community Conferencing Center has mediated disputes involving some 16,000 people since it opened in 1998. In each case referred to it by the police, courts or school system, a trained facilitator leads a group that includes the offender and the victim, their families and community residents. The group sits in a circle and everybody gets a chance to speak and hear what happened and its effect. After that participants are given a chance to see if they can make up with a written agreement about how to repair the harm.

If they do, and if everyone abides by the agreement, the case is closed by the state's attorney's office and no further criminal proceedings are involved. The center, which has an annual budget of about $600,000 and a full-time staff of seven counselors who each handle about 100 referrals a year, say they are able to resolve 95 percent of the disputes that come before them without intervention by the courts. Moreover, the program has resulted in a 60 percent drop in recidivism compared to offenders in the juvenile court system.

That not only spares youthful offenders the prospect of a criminal record that will follow them for years but saves the state millions of dollars in prosecution and incarceration costs. A study by the non-partisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that for every dollar spent on county juvenile detention systems, $1.98 in benefits were achieved in terms of reduced crime and its cost to taxpayers. By contrast, the benefits of diversion and restorative justice interventions like the Conferencing Center were between $10 and $13 for every dollar spent.

The Youth Promise Act, which would be funded through grants from the U.S. Justice Department, would enable state and local governments to greatly expand the use of such interventions as a way of dismantling the school to prison pipeline that traps too many young people in dead-end lives. At a time when Congress can hardly agree on anything else, it is something that lawmakers can support regardless of partisan politics not only because it will save the government money but because what we're doing now clearly isn't working. A new, more effective approach to juvenile crime is urgently needed.


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