Tony was a 14-year-old on probation for car theft and truancy. He had a reputation around town as a troublemaker. His neighborhood was infested with drug dealers.
Tony was prime material for a life of crime.
But hope came to Tony through a program called Choice, which takes an unconventional approach to turning young offenders around. It’s called intensive supervision, and it means that a caseworker checks on Tony not once a week, not even once a day, but several times a day.
Tony’s caseworker, a young college graduate, knocks on his door every morning and makes sure he gets off to school. He tutors Tony after school, takes him to doctor appointments, arranges basketball games with other kids.
In the Choice program, every teen has to sign a contract agreeing to specific behavioral goals, such as going to school, keeping a curfew, cooperating with parents. And caseworkers are there to hold the kids to their contracts. If a teen doesn’t keep his curfew, his caseworker goes out looking for him.
The Choice program is committed to helping troubled kids stay out of institutions and stay with their families. And it really works. Since the program began in 1989, 80 percent of its teens have remained arrest-free. Even those re-arrested have been charged with less serious offenses.
Compared to juvenile detention, the Choice program is extremely cost-effective. The cost of incarcerating a juvenile ranges from $40,000 to $60,000 a year. But the average cost in the Choice program is only $6,000 a year.
Prison Fellowship has recently started a similar program called MatchPoint®. These are the kinds of initiatives the government ought to be supporting in its desperate search for a solution to crime. But, ironically, when the House passed its version of the crime bill, it voted down a bill calling for alternative programs for juveniles.
Opponents said it was “soft” on crime.
But criminals are not all the same, and we should not impose a single, one-size-fits-all form of punishment. A small percentage of juvenile criminals are already hardened criminals; they need to be locked away for the protection of society.
But for the Tonys of this world, who are guilty of minor offenses such as running away, truancy, and minor theft, a community-based program is actually much more demanding than a few months languishing in prison. The Choice program requires someone like Tony to reconcile with his family, to stay in school, to pay back his victim. It challenges him to be responsible in the thick of real life.
And holding people responsible is what the criminal justice system should be all about.
Congress will reconvene in a few weeks to hammer out the final version of the omnibus crime bill. Why not call your representatives and tell them you support funding for alternative programs.
Our lawmakers are trying to polish up an image of being “tough on crime.” But I’ll tell you who’s really tough on crime: It’s those young college graduates who are willing to brave dark row houses in drug-infested neighborhoods day and night?just to make sure a kid keeps his curfew.
Seventh in a 15-part series on crime.