Juvenile prevention programs do work

The latest national report on child well-being gives North Carolina a thumbs up for some ways we're addressing juvenile crime and delinquency. The state's use of Juvenile Crime Prevention Council services helped reduce the retention and commitment rate of youngsters aged 10-15 as well as the percent of youths in custody for nonviolent offenses.

According to the latest KIDS Count Data Book, a project of the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, North Carolina saw a detention and commitment rate in 2006 that was 34 percent lower than the nationwide rate. The percent in custody for nonviolent offenses was 59 percent compared to 66 percent.

That's good news. Experts say nationally most juveniles are incarcerated for minor offenses. They may end up in custody inappropriately or unnecessarily because they're provided inadequate treatment for emotional and behavioral disorders, or ineffective and insufficient social services to deal with serious home and family issues.

The Juvenile Crime Prevention Council services involve key community stakeholders in each county in assessing needs and allocating money for appropriate services for at-risk youth and their families. They include programs such as life skills training, counseling and therapy that have been proven effective. According to researchers, the programs ``reduce recidivism and (are) the most practical and cost-effective approach.''

In North Carolina, the juvenile crime rate reached an eight-year low in 2007, according to the report. The N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention received 34 complaints per 1,000 youngsters aged 6-15 in 2007, a 6 percent decrease in juvenile crime from the year before.

The progress has not been the same for juveniles 16 and 17. North Carolina does not provide the kind of services and support to these juveniles. In fact, it is was of three states that automatically prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, even for minor offenses. Indeed, more juveniles are processed as adults than as juveniles in this state, even though the majority of crimes committed are minor offenses.

Minors who do serious crimes should get serious punishment. Those who commit minor offenses must be held accountable, too. A slap on the wrist won't do. But research shows the most effective programs to deter youngsters from committing minor crimes, and from graduating to more serious offenses, include education, parental involvement, punishment and rehabilitation.

Punishment alone, especially adult punishment for juveniles, most often leads to further convictions and incarcerations. It's an ineffective strategy that's costing millions of dollars annually. Why not spend those dollars instead on expanding to 16- and 17-year-olds the kinds of Juvenile Crime Prevention Council services that are helping younger juveniles? The data shows it's a wise investment. It's not soft on crime to do what's proven to work.