Beyond Bars: States Are Looking to Reduce Youth Violence by Addressing Its Causes in a More Comprehensive Way

Article excerpt

The equivalent of about 10,000 busloads of kids end up in emergency rooms for violence-related injuries every year. The journey ends there for the more than 5,500 children murdered every year.

Law enforcement plays an important role in reducing youth violence, but preventing it before it occurs is even more pressing for states and communities. Violence in young people's lives is a burden to the public health system; understanding this has helped lawmakers, community leaders and public health advocates develop ways to curb it.

Youth violence affects more than just those injured. Every homicide touches 10 to 20 more people. Family, friends and the community must live with the long-term consequences of violent acts. Communities with high numbers of violent kids also have higher health care costs, reduced productivity, decreased property values and disrupted social services, according to the World Health Organization.

And while violence among young people has decreased since the 1990s, it still costs the United States more than $10 billion a year in medical expenses and lost work productivity.

The Path to Peace

Homicides among young people, especially among young men, more than doubled in the late '80s and early '90s. Law enforcement responded with zero tolerance policies that addressed the violence, but not its causes. These policies sent young offenders into the adult justice system for usually minor offenses, but failed to focus on how to prevent fighting and other types of violence in the first place.

So the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, along with Congress and the U.S. surgeon general, shifted their perspective and began to view youth violence as a major public health problem. Beginning in 1992, with money from Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded activities to prevent violence into schools and other areas and measured the effectiveness of existing youth violence prevention programs around the country.

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After 1993, violence and juvenile arrests began to decrease, suggesting that some of the new programs were working. A 2001 U.S. surgeon general's report found programs that focused on classroom attendance, academic progress and school behavior helped reduce violence and delinquency among kids. But boot camps--residential programs that take place in correctional institutions--and "scared straight" programs that show the brutality of prison life were ineffective.

This was the first wave of effective use of public health approaches to prevent violence among young people and contributed to a decrease in rates in the past 20 years. But those rates have levelled off, spurting policymakers and public health advocates to reassess what really works in order to reduce violence even further.

Taking Action

Community leaders, public health advocates and policymakers began taking a more wholistic approach to curbing violence, looking at solutions that go beyond school.

The 1995 Illinois Violence Prevention Act, for example, called for a comprehensive, collaborative approach to preventing violence. The law created the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority to distribute grants to local and statewide anti-violence programs and coordinate existing prevention initiatives and projects.

The authority received more than $64.5 million in state general funds from 1999 to 2010, and also received revenue from the sales of special license plates. Evidence of the law's effectiveness is anecdotal, but promising. To help guide future activities, the authority has incorporated a formal evaluation into every community program and has created an online database.

The authority also was charged with coordinating Governor Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, aimed at communities hard hit by violence. The initiative invests in counseling and case management for younger students exposed to violence; job opportunities and mentoring for teenagers; reentry programs for youth in juvenile detention centers; and a leadership and job program for parents. …