Though we are concerned with the well-being of youthful offenders, we must also restore the protection of society to the top priority it deserves.
Youth gang violence is random and unpredictable, and when it happens communities become frightened and outraged and demand it never happens again. They want more police protection and more of the same for youths more treatment, counseling and more social/recreational programs that focus on the youth offender. The reality is that we do not know what causes juvenile delinquency, yet we have developed a patchwork of unrelated programs to prevent it.
Thirty-five years ago there were predictions that youth crime would change from stolen property and status offenses to more serious crimes violence, robbery, assault, rape and growth of gangs and drugs in our urban communities. There were also warnings that we should not place all our efforts on the "juvenile delinquent" and trying to treat and protect him or her but also focus on the "social loss" of youth crime as well. For example, one of the greatest breakthroughs in reducing auto theft among 15- to 17-year-old youths occurred in 1973 not because of any great breakthrough in the youths' psyche but because steering column locks were mandated on new cars.
In 1974, law professor Franklin Zimring made the following recommendations to the National Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to focus resources and effort where government can make a difference: "1) reduce the social loss generated by youth crime, and 2) minimize the harmful impact of intervention efforts on young offenders by redesigning the content of intervention programs and eliminating the intrusion of these programs into the lives of juveniles who do not need correctional intervention."
Our juvenile justice system was created to deal with troubled and wayward youths at a time when they were in need of protection and committing crimes that were less violent and less threatening to the safety of our communities. Now we should renew our public policies that focus on the "social loss" of youth crime, as well as the youths, and where government can make a difference: Punitive measures such as denial of drivers' licenses, restitution, community work and limiting the use of firearms could act as deterrents. Community security measures should be used, such as physical planning of streets, lights, buildings, homes and schools. State and local governments ought to include law enforcement departments in community planning aimed at reducing opportunities for crime.
By focusing on the concept of "reduction of social loss," Zimring shifts emphasis from the young offender to the consequences of his/her offenses. This shift places "treatment" and "nontreatment" strategies on an equal basis rather than only pursuing the elusive "delinquency prevention" approach, which escapes specificity. He also pointed out that the impact of intervention in the lives of youths highlights the tension that exists between advocates of treatment on a nonvoluntary basis who are trying to protect youths versus the advocates of crime prevention.
In reality, many of those nonvoluntary treatment programs are further coercive government intervention in a youth's life that may or may not be effective. Adding more layers of treatment programs only increases the number of youths swept needlessly into the juvenile justice system; and often replaces parental neglect with state neglect.It's time we stop putting all our efforts into the elusive prevention approach with youths. After all, we still don't know what causes kids to commit crimes. Let's give equal attention on how to prevent the crime and reduce the social cost to society. The measurement of reducing youth crime should not be how many youths are in prevention programs but rather how are communities safer today and have we reduced youth crime?
John Florez was a member of President Ford's National Advisory Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and is a former juvenile probation officer, child welfare worker and youth worker.