It is well established that delinquent behavior is a precipitant of several social and cognitive factors. Instead of facing this fact, the U.S. Congress continues to support punishment-driven law enforcement policy in order to appear “tough on crime.” In keeping criminals off the streets, citizens are given the impression of reduced crime while our country now has the highest average incarceration rate in the world.

You may ask: Who are these offenders? The answer is that they are primarily the most vulnerable of our population — kids in their late teens and early 20s. Studies have shown that these young adults generally lack strong support from conventional adult institutions, like family or work. Further enveloped by poverty, racial disparity and our present culture of punishment, these children find themselves in what the Children’s Defense Fund describes as a “cradle-to-prison pipeline.” No matter how much we franchise the harsh prosecution of crime, unless we address the underlying root cause of criminal activity, we are letting the actual crime go unpunished.

In Richmond, Virginia, the pilot program Gang Reduction and Intervention spent $2.5 million in a collaborative effort with the federal, state and local partners to focus on a target community. In two years, the city saw major crimes in that community decline by 43 percent. Homicides fell from 19 to 2. This program is an example of an evidence-based strategy. That is, a program that has been experimentally proven to reduce crime rates in youth. Though the Richmond example speaks for itself, it’s worth reiterating how prevention programs can dramatically change the course of this cradle-to-prison paradigm.

This is what a bipartisan bill called Youth PROMISE (Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education) Act (H.R. 1064/S. 435), intends to do. The Youth PROMISE Act would provide support for youth organizations to create a PROMISE advisory panel. This panel would highlight specific areas of need for prevention programs and work with vital support systems within communities, including parents, community members, faith-based organizations and law enforcement. Together, these groups will evaluate the needs of a specific community and implement evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies, like early childhood education, mentoring, mental health and job training. The bill provides accountability for these programs through regular reports to federal and local government and frequent reviews of current research on societal needs and youth crime statistics.

The bill is presently in the U.S. House of Representatives and has come under attack because it expands federal oversight of state criminal policy and increases the national deficit. Though the bill requires $1.6 billion in funding, Rep. Bobby Scott (D–Va.), who authored the bill, suggests that the cost pales in comparison to how much is already spent on punishing young criminals.

In Los Angeles County, it costs $140,000 a year to keep a minor in juvenile hall. The numbers are equally daunting for Michigan. In 2009, Michigan spent $34,000 per inmate while the national average was a little less than $29,000 per inmate. And while Michigan residents pay for an incarceration rate that is 5 percent greater than the national average, our crime rates remain unchanged. It’s because of these policies that we’re made to lock our children in prison for the most formative years of their lives. Michigan deserves law enforcement policies that work.

Let’s create policies that take our kids out of prisons and put them into schools and the job market. Let us target the root cause of crime, instead of placing it out of sight. Please contact your representatives in Congress to ensure the protection of our youth and communities.

Jasleen Singh is a Social Work graduate student.

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