Think back to the mid-’90s, when Princeton professor John DiIulio predicted that 270,000 “superpredators” would be rampaging through the streets by 2010. Widespread fear of these mythical young sociopaths, who were described as naturally prone to extreme bouts of violence and impervious to any effort at rehabilitation, bolstered a “tough on crime” mentality that, in turn, prompted a raft of increasingly draconian legislation aimed at troubled youth. More and more juvenile delinquents, at younger and younger ages, were denied educational and rehabilitative services and cranked through the courts and prisons as if they were adults. A small cadre of youth advocates and assorted lefties cried foul, but for the most part the American public accepted that the measures taken were an appropriate response to a growing threat.
That threat, of course, never materialized; the violent crime rate among juveniles has steadily declined in recent years. And the policy itself has been revealed as a failure: studies have shown that overemphasis on punishment for youthful offenders actually increases recidivism rates. Nevertheless, the US justice system’s approach to juvenile delinquency, along with that of most statehouses, remains harsh. And the public’s support for the way young lawbreakers are handled remains, to this day, equally strong. Right? Wrong.
Two surveys released today, both funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and tied to its landmark Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative, show strong support for swinging the pendulum back toward rehabilitation, even if it means a tax increase. The surveys come at a particularly opportune time, as momentum builds to reauthorize the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and strengthen the core protections of the bill, which include ensuring that children are not locked away in adult jails and prisons and re-establishing rehab as a top priority for children who come into contact with the law.
The Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP) polled 1,700 American adults last summer and found that more than 70 percent agree that incarcerating youth without rehab is the same as giving up on them. Nine out of ten people surveyed agree that “almost all youth who commit crimes have the potential to change,” and eight in ten favor reallocating state funds from incarceration to programming. Majorities regard schooling, job training, mental health treatment, counseling and follow-up services as “very effective” means toward rehabilitation; more than three-quarters favor keeping nonviolent youth in small facilities in their own communities. (For a more detailed summary and analysis of the findings, click here.)
The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice (ADJJ) phoned 500 households in each of the four states that are participating in the Models for Change initiative (Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Washington) and focused specifically on the cost perspective. The ADJJ survey found a majority of respondents are more amenable to paying for rehab than for punishment, and they are willing, on average, to accept a $98 tax hike to support such programs. Those sampled say they are willing to pay nearly 20 percent more in additional taxes for programs that offer rehabilitative services to serious juvenile offenders than for longer periods of incarceration. (For summary and analysis, click here.)
“Punitive responses to juvenile crime…are far more expensive and often less effective than less harsh alternatives,”Alex Piquero and Laurence Steinberg, who oversaw the ADJJ study, explain in the executive summary. “If politicians’ misreading of public sentiment has led to the adoption of more expensive policy alternatives than the public actually wants, tax dollars are likely being wasted on policies that are costly and possibly ineffective, and that also may be less popular than is widely assumed.” Their survey, the authors conclude, is intended to show that “members of the public are concerned about youth crime and want to reduce its incidence, and are ready to support effective rehabilitative programs as a means of accomplishing that end.”
As an editorial in today’s Baltimore Sun rightly argues, “the two surveys together make a compelling case for juvenile justice systems to focus their money and policies on re-education, training and treatment for youthful offenders.”
Politicians, take note. Your constituents are less concerned with being tough on juvenile crime than being smart on juvenile crime.