January 2014

Juvenile Crime and Justice: The State of America and How we Can Improve

Posted by Andrew Serrano

Perceptions and Realities

Juvenile crime and justice is a hot-button issue in the United States. While statistics show improvements in crime rates (the nationwide juvenile Violent Crime Index arrest rate reached a historic low in 2011), media-saturated topics such as the "knockout game" and the rise of "superpredators" can skew viewpoints and generate fear, hopelessness, and confusion nationwide. Intervention strategies that were once lauded have been proven ineffective, while the public perception of "what works" lags behind fresh data. After decades of studies and reviews, a number of evidence-based practices have been proven effective in reducing youth crime rates and saving money.

Evidence-based interventions such as Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, and Multidimensional Family Therapy have demonstrably helped thousands of at-risk youths and their families. These practices share a constant approach; individuals are treated and supervised in their communities. Outcomes have shown that the models benefit not only the children and families affected by the juvenile justice system, but every American community.

The Justice Policy Institute recently released "Sticker Shock", a report estimating that the United States spends between $8 billion and $21 billion each year on youth incarceration. In the report, the JPI recommends that policymakers shift funding from incarceration to community-based programs, which cost taxpayers far less than locking up juveniles. The report showed that each incarcerated youth costs taxpayers $88,000 yearly, over eight times more than it would cost to educate the youth for the year.

Due to the considerable number of existing treatment strategies, there are misconceptions of the most effective practices. Understanding which models work and which are unfounded is crucial in helping youths stay out of prison and become positive members of their communities.

How to Intervene

Research has shown that treating youths in their communities, using individualized programming and a holistic approach, is the most effective way to reduce crime rates and increase pro-social behavior. These types of treatments, rather than ineffective ("scared straight", D.A.R.E., zero-tolerance) approaches, have been statistically proven to decrease drug and alcohol abuse, reduce re-arrests and out-of-home placements, and improve family functioning.

Evidence-based practices use a combination of clinical treatments and are tailored for the individual's needs. They provide structure and guidance on how to engage in pro-social behavior across multiple settings, including the home, peer groups, and school. Using these tactics, the models have demonstrated years of success in reducing juvenile crime.

Outcomes and How to Help

Once in the criminal justice system, individuals face extremely challenging barriers to future success, leading to disturbing rates of reoffending. By seeking and supporting the most effective interventions, America can prepare its young for bright futures, lower crime rates, and save significant sums of money.

Do what you can to spread awareness amongst your family, friends, coworkers, and social media followers. As mentioned earlier, most Americans don't know that the violent crime rate keeps dropping. Many also are unaware of the ineffective practices that may be running in their communities and schools, as well as the alternatives.

Find gaps in your communities and support intervention strategies that utilize best practices. Effectively treating at-risk youths will lead to less crime, fewer incarcerated children, and safer communities nationwide.