Our country today faces an epidemic of lost lives, and Santa Barbara County is no exception. Too many young people — due to circumstances beyond their control: poverty, abuse, neglect, lack of positive role models and direction — turn to lives of delinquency and crime, which means they are likely to end up in prison. Lately, the issue of gangs and the controversial gang injunction have received quite a bit of attention. On March 19, an anti-gang documentary premiered in Santa Maria titled Life Facing Bars. Santa Maria PD’s Lieutenant Dan Cohen created it in a project that interviewed current gang members behind bars in an effort to dissuade other youth from following in their footsteps. Many of the prisoners interviewed began their gang affiliations when they were just 12 or 13 years old.

Youth crime and incarceration is a huge problem throughout our country, for the number of youth in our justice system is increasing. A recent study shows that for the period 1997-2008, 22 percent of white males and 30 percent of black males had been arrested by age 18, and by age 23, the number increased to 38 percent for white men and 49 percent for black men. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that this problem is partly caused by well-intentioned zero-tolerance policies in schools that often inject the criminal justice system into the resolution of problems. Yet arrest, let alone any kind of incarceration, has life-changing, detrimental effects on our youth. Even if the young person is found not guilty, psychological damage can occur and cause a setback to the child’s education, and any kind of record makes it more difficult for the young person to get back on track to a productive life. It can be difficult to get a college education, as well as funding for an education, to get housing, and to get a job.

What would be a better solution is prevention, and this can be achieved through mentoring, counseling, youth programs, and even good preschools. Seventy-five percent of all crimes are committed by high school dropouts. Our young people need to feel responsible, to feel that someone cares, and to not have their lives derailed by an early bad decision. To have them enter the justice system is not only expensive, for it costs over $100,000 annually to incarcerate a young person in California, but it also leads to lost lives, lost relationships, and lost productivity. They become a burden rather than a contributing part of our society and our economy.

California’s Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act of 2000 did make a difference, and programs helped to reduce crime rates through funding family therapies and programs for first-time offenders, gang and truancy prevention, and after-school programs. But the economy took its downturn, funding was cut, and only half of the youth who were eligible for the program received any assistance.

A bill pending in Congress, HR 1318, the Youth Prison Reduction Act, also known as the Youth PROMISE (Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education) Act, would provide the necessary funding help young people escape the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” and put them on to the “Cradle to College and Career Pipeline.” This legislation would identify the areas that would benefit, and it would engage community stakeholders to serve on a local planning council to develop and implement evidence-based, locally tailored violence prevention plans. The bill would require communities to reinvest some of the savings gained from reduced law enforcement and incarceration costs to fund the future operation of the programs.

The Youth Prison Reduction Act has been introduced in several Congresses and nearly reached a vote on the House floor in 2010, but it has not received any recent attention. Over 300 organizations have signed a letter in support of this bill, including the Boys and Girls Club of America, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, American Psychological Association, Children’s Defense Fund, National Headstart Association, and the County of Santa Barbara. Congressmember Capps was an original cosponsor in the 111th Congress, but she is no longer listed as a cosponsor. (Though I tried, I was unable to meet with the representative or her staff regarding this legislation.)

The growing number of youth in gangs in our county and our country is a problem for all of us. Each one of them could benefit from legislation intended to help keep their lives on a positive track. Productive young people would add to our economy, instead of draining resources with crime, welfare, or prison. Instead of losing a generation, supporting legislation like HR 1318 would serve us all.

Lisa Wolfe is taking her master’s in social work at USC and lives in Santa Barbara.


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