A Promise for Our Children

For too many years, the approach toward youth gang violence in this country has consisted largely of incarcerating too many vulnerable children and youth who are living in our most challenged communities. This deeply flawed approach has contributed to widening racial and ethnic disparities in our juvenile and criminal justice systems; it is stunningly expensive; and it doesn't work.

Newly released figures from the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that the United States has an incarceration crisis. With nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in its prisons and jails, the United States bears the dubious distinction of being the world's leading jailer. A disturbingly disproportionate share of those incarcerated are young African-American and Latino men from high-poverty neighborhoods. These statistics reflect deep and troubling racial and ethnic disparities that pervade the juvenile and criminal justice systems in the United States, violate human rights, and undermine our most fundamental principles of equal justice under the law.

The bright side is that at this unique moment in our nation's history, we have a critical opportunity to turn the corner, and reject failed and costly criminal justice policies. As economist Paul Romer puts it, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Human Rights Watch has urged the new Administration and the 111th Congress to adopt positive alternatives to incarceration that are designed to increase public safety, yield cost savings, and comport with international human rights obligations. Improving the way we respond to gang-related youth crime and delinquency, and enacting the Youth PROMISE Act, is an important first step in achieving that change.

Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) in the 110th Congress, the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education (PROMISE) Act takes a smart approach to youth gang violence and delinquency prevention. This legislation is based on a growing body of evidence demonstrating that school and community-based programs and practices can effectively reduce gang affiliation and crime and increase rates of high school graduation. The Youth PROMISE Act recognizes that federal dollars are best spent on preventive measures that lead children away from gang activity and into positive programs and activities that give youth the support they need to learn and grow.

Rejecting "one size fits all" approaches that will funnel more youth -- particularly poor youth and youth of color -- into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, the Youth PROMISE Act supports evidence-based and promising local community efforts to prevent youth from entering the justice system. At a recent Youth Violence Summit on Capitol Hill, which highlighted the benefits of the Youth PROMISE Act, youth in the GINGA Capoeira program brought down the House with a stunning performance of the Afro-Brazilian art form that ritualizes movement from martial arts, games, and dance. One teenage artist in the group credits GINGA with helping him exit gang life and move away from despair and violence. With tears in his eyes, he said, "We need legislation like the Youth PROMISE Act so that more teens like me can have hope in their lives."

The Youth PROMISE Act also promotes effective law enforcement techniques through Youth Oriented Policing Services ("YOPS") that provide training, hiring and support for officers to implement strategic and age-appropriate community-based activities that minimize youth crime and victimization, and reduce the long-term involvement of youth in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The Act also provides for thorough evaluation and analysis of the financial savings sustained through investment in prevention and intervention, and the resulting reductions in incarceration and criminal justice costs.

There is no doubt that actual violence requires an effective law enforcement response. But when it comes to addressing the problem of youth gang violence, crime and delinquency, increased arrests and incarceration of youthful and nonviolent offenders are not the answer. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers repeatedly emphasize the need for more resources in the community, rather than additional or duplicative federal sanctions, to address the problem of gang violence. In a recent discussion about gangs, Providence, R.I. Police Chief Col. Dean Esserman noted, "The best way to fight crime is not to arrest these children." He added, "We are not looking for smaller handcuffs."

Noting the inefficiency of increased sanctions in stemming youth crime and delinquency, No More Children Left Behind Bars, a report by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and its Founding and Executive Director, Professor Charles Ogletree, cites an exhaustive review of empirical studies and concludes: "Incarceration is a spectacularly unsuccessful treatment."
The US Department of Justice National Criminal Justice Reference Service has also found incarceration does little to disrupt the violent activities of gang-affiliated inmates. Research reveals that prisons and detention centers can in fact strengthen gang affiliations and become a breeding ground for potential gang activity. Insofar as youth in the community form gangs for protection and family-like relationships, incarcerated youth have an even greater need for protection.

Despite overwhelming evidence that incarceration is not the answer, we have spent far more resources in this country arresting and prosecuting young people who aren't violent than we have trying to eliminate the actual causes of gang involvement and youth crime. By changing our approach, and investing wisely in our most important resource in this country -- our children and youth -- we can turn the corner.

Nelson Mandela has said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way it treats its children." Congress should re-introduce and pass the Youth PROMISE Act early in the 111th Congress, and President-elect Obama should, once he is President, sign this critical legislation into law. And soon, the soul of this nation might finally begin to heal.

Carol Chodroff is the Advocacy Director for the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch.