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Striking a Balance in Responding to Juvenile Crime

Study shows some impact for prevention efforts as “get tough” approaches fade

In 1995, Pensylvania governor Tom Ridge convened a special session of the state legislature to confront the problem of rising crime. Out of it emerged tough new laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug and gun offenses and a new rule that youths as young as 15 who used guns to commit violent crimes be tried as adults.

Ridge was not alone. Across the country, politicians worked to calm public anxiety over increasing crime, vowing to get tough on criminals, including the youngest. New sentencing laws boosted adult incarceration and made it easier to try juvenile offenders. At the same time, however, states were also taking a “softer” approach, quietly investing in programs to keep youths out of trouble.

New research publishedin the December 2015 Social Service Review examines the rise of these efforts. In a study titled “Searching for the Best Mix of Strategies: Delinquency Prevention and the Transformation of Juvenile Justice in the ‘Get Tough’ Era and Beyond,” Michael Schlossman, assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University of New Jersey, and Brandon Welsh, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Northeastern University, show that the same concerns that produced harsher crime laws also led to a heightened interest in delinquency prevention programs.

"There was a sense that youth crime was out of control," Schlossman says. “I think that was what led people to say ‘we have to get tough on crime.’ The justice system isn’t working, however, we have to prevent people from getting to that point.”

The authors trace delinquency prevention efforts back to the Chicago Area Project, which began at the University of Chicago in 1931. CAP, as it’s known, was based on the same progressive ideals that led to the creation of juvenile courts. CAP recruited civic leaders and local social service centers to fight community disintegration and mentor at-risk youth. It was a form of community self-help that included counseling, school related activities, and athletic leagues.

Researchers disagree whether or not CAP worked. But the organization still exists, and its approach has inspired other prevention efforts across the country.

The authors focus chiefly on two states, Pennsylvania and Washington, which became leaders in delinquency prevention. In Pennsylvania, harsh new sentencing guidelines increased adult incarceration 52 percent from 1997 to 2008. But Pennsylvania also spent $30 million during the Ridge administration on Communities that Care programs and other prevention efforts.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington put preventionbased programs at the center of its anti-delinquency efforts. It also made what the authors describe as “groundbreaking” efforts to use social science research to figure out what worked.

Both states tried to balance their desire to punish with a renewed emphasis on preventing delinquency. For these and other reasons, the anti-crime movement of the 1990s fell less harshly on juveniles than on adults. Juvenile courts insulated youths from the full force of crime legislation. While the number of youths charged as adults in Washington went up during the 1990s, it later declined.

Today we are no longer in a “get-tough-on-crime” era. Youth crime has fallen, and so have the number of incarcerated youths. But Schlossman and Welsh say that more effort to prevent delinquency is still needed as part of mix of strategies to combat youth crime. They say that delinquency prevention reduces the harm that the juvenile justice system inflicts on young people and the other costs of incarcerating the young.

Do prevention programs work? The evidence from Washington suggests they do—but modestly. Studies have found that prevention efforts there curbed youth crime by five to 15 percent.

Still, the authors conclude that “intervening with youth at an early age and before their involvement in serious delinquency— as well as working outside of a sometimes dysfunctional court system—is as advantageous today as it was in the past.”

Schlossman, Michael and Welsh, Brandon."Searching for the Best Mix of Strategies: Delinquency Prevention and the Transformation of Juvenile Justice in the ‘Get Tough’ Era and Beyond." Social Service Review, 89 (4), pp. 622-652.