POLITICS

Bipartisan Group Of Senators Fights To Help Keep Kids Out Of Prison

WASHINGTON -- Four senators from both ends of the political spectrum will introduce a bill Wednesday that is aimed at keeping at-risk young people out of the prison system.

Two Democratic senators, Bob Casey (Penn.) and Gary Peters (Mich.), will be joined by two conservative Republicans, Sens. David Vitter (La.) and James Inhofe (Okla.), in sponsoring a bill that would provide local governments with grants to help them address juvenile delinquency.

The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act -- or Youth PROMISE Act -- would specifically fund efforts to collect better data on the effectiveness of juvenile intervention programs, such as after-school programs and mentoring. A 2008 study in Pennsylvania suggested communities could save money by focusing on intervention programs for at-risk youths.

The bill would also establish PROMISE Coordinating Councils made up of parents, young people, educators, law enforcement officers and other community leaders. Using federal grant money, these diverse councils would help devise and implement community-based intervention programs for at-risk youth.

A similar version of the bill was introduced in the House this spring, where its bipartisan co-sponsors included Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.) and conservative Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), a former prosecutor.

In an interview Wednesday, Casey said the Youth PROMISE Act would use federal dollars to fund evidence-based programs that are specially tailored to meet the needs of specific communities.

"Often the best role the federal government can play is that of a facilitator, or a catalyst for local solutions, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model," he said.

A two-term senator from Pennsylvania, Casey has a special interest in keeping young people out of the correctional system. In 2009, the city of Wilkes-Barre was the site of an infamous juvenile justice scandal known as "kids for cash," in which two judges were found to have collected millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private youth corrections center operator in exchange for sentencing thousands of young people to juvenile detention at their facilities.

Six years after the "kids for cash" scandal made headlines, Casey said the national conversation around juvenile justice and mass incarceration has changed dramatically.

"I think taxpayers are realizing the limitations of our corrections system," he said. "Ask any governor in any state, and they'll tell you one of their biggest challenges is paying for corrections. The idea that we can build our way out of this crisis [by building prisons] just doesn't work."

Public attitudes toward nonviolent offenders are also changing, Casey said. "There's more of an appreciation today for the difference between a violent offender who truly is a threat to society, and other folks who just got caught up in the system when they were young, and don't pose a long-term threat," he said.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for broad criminal justice reform, telling an annual NAACP conference that "in too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails."

In response, Obama said, "good people of all political persuasions are saying, 'we need to do something about this.'"

The same day Obama spoke, a group of House members, two Democrats and two Republicans, formed the bipartisan Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, a new caucus aimed at reforming the criminal justice system.

Other reform efforts are also gaining steam in the Senate, notably a push by Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah) and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) to overhaul the nation's sentencing laws.

"This is a new chapter," Casey said, "where you have people on both ends of the political spectrum coming together to work on a range of issues under the umbrella of 'how do we dispense justice more fairly, but also, how do we put young people on the right track in life?' It's all part of one priority."

CONVERSATIONS