Over the past decade researchers have identified intervention strategies and program models that reduce delinquency and promote pro-social development. Preventing delinquency, says Peter Greenwood, not only saves young lives from being wasted, but also prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the burden of crime on its victims and on society. It costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat juvenile offenders. Investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.
According to Greenwood, researchers have identified a dozen "proven" delinquency-prevention programs. Another twenty to thirty "promising" programs are still being tested. In his article, Greenwood reviews the methods used to identify the best programs, explains how program success is measured, provides an overview of programs that work, and offers guidance on how jurisdictions can shift toward more evidence-based practices
The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place. Greenwood specifically cites home-visiting programs that target pregnant teens and their at-risk infants and preschool education for at-risk children that includes home visits or work with parents. Successful school-based programs can prevent drug use, delinquency, anti-social behavior, and early school drop-out.
Greenwood also discusses community-based programs that can divert first-time offenders from further encounters with the justice system. The most successful community programs emphasize family interactions and provide skills to the adults who supervise and train the child.
Progress in implementing effective programs, says Greenwood, is slow. Although more than ten years of solid evidence is now available on evidence-based programs, only about 5 percent of youth who should be eligible participate in these programs. A few states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Washington have begun implementing evidence-based programs. The challenge is to push these reforms into the mainstream of juvenile justice.
There are many reasons to prevent juveniles from becoming delinquents or from continuing to engage in delinquent behavior. The most obvious reason is that delinquency puts a youth at risk for drug use and dependency, school drop-out, incarceration, injury, early pregnancy, and adult criminality. Saving youth from delinquency saves them from wasted lives. (1) But there are other reasons as well.
Most adult criminals begin their criminal careers as juveniles. Preventing delinquency prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the burden of crime on its victims and on society. Delinquents and adult offenders take a heavy toll, both financially and emotionally, on victims and on taxpayers, who must share the costs. And the cost of arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating, and treating offenders, the fastest growing part of most state budgets over the past decade, now runs into the billions of dollars a year. Yet recent analyses have shown that investments in appropriate delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons. (2)
The prospect of reaping such savings by preventing delinquency is a new one. During the early 1990s, when crime rates had soared to historic levels, it was unclear how to go about preventing or stopping delinquency. Many of the most popular delinquency-prevention programs of that time, such as DARE, Scared Straight, Boot Camps, or transferring juveniles to adult courts, were ineffective at best. Some even increased the risks of future delinquency. (3)
Only during the past fifteen years have researchers begun clearly identifying both the risk factors that produce delinquency and the interventions that consistently reduce the likelihood that it will occur. …