In last year’s State of the Union address, President Bush highlighted the growing threat of youth violence, touting his Administration’s commitment to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, the President’s rhetoric did not square with his budget request. Funding for the Justice Department juvenile justice programs was cut by almost 40 percent. And this came on top of severe cuts to the same programs stretching back to 2002.
That won’t come as news in my home district, Los Angeles County, which has suffered from an epidemic of youth homicides and violence. The State Attorney General’s office reports that homicide rates among California youth, which had steadily declined since the peak year of 1993, are once again growing. The rates are particularly high among African-Americans and Hispanics. Handgun violence has risen. And the upswing in youth violence is not limited to Los Angeles County.
As President Bush’s budget-slashing has made clear, it’s up to Congress to get serious about reducing youth and gang violence. That means, first and foremost, recognizing that punitive measures–stiffer sentences, more correctional facilities, prosecuting juveniles as adults–are proven nonstarters for reducing gang violence. In fact, prisons are often ideal venues for gang organizing and recruitment. Rather than another round of “lock ’em up” policies that are guaranteed to fail, Congress should step up funding for programs that have proven effective at the local level. Byrne grants and Community Oriented Policing programs, which promote partnerships among state, local and federal agencies involved in juvenile law-enforcement and intervention programs, must be funded at sustainable levels and not zeroed out of the budget, as was proposed in the Bush Administration’s budget request last year. Resources also need to flow to family intervention programs. Research shows that chronic juvenile offenders who participate in intensive family therapy are almost two-thirds less likely to be re-arrested within four years. Many of these programs have been found so cost-effective that they more than pay for themselves.
Congress should also create something new: a public/private partnership forged to allay youth violence. A growing number of youth offenders are being assigned to alternative or “transition” schools for problem students. These institutions need–but few can afford–extracurricular activities that will help steer their students away from violence.
That’s why I intend to introduce legislation in the next few months that would require alternative school students to either perform 150 hours of community service or to intern with a local business or nonprofit group. Participating businesses would receive a specified tax credit for each student they sponsor. Additional tax relief would apply if a student is hired after high school graduation.
Effective programs to reduce youth violence involve partnerships like that–creative collaborations among local, state and national law enforcement, and among social service agencies, parents and schools. Rather than continuing to pursue failed policies that rely heavily on punitive measures, we need to fund partnerships and programs that will help young people who badly need it, and make the country safer.