Dear Senator Feinstein and Senator Hatch,
Societies are judged on how they treat their elderly, their sick and their children. For far too long we have failed all three. The two of you have the opportunity and the responsibility to take a step in changing this course by passing the Youth PROMISE Act. I write to urge you to work with the House and to pass legislation once and for all to prevent and reduce youth gang violence in this country. Congress has a critical opportunity and, I believe, a corresponding obligation, to use the small window remaining in this legislative session to make this country safer and more hopeful for our young people.
In focusing for too many years on predominantly “tough on crime” strategies to address crime, Congress has neglected to focus on prevention. As a result, the United States now has the highest average incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars. The impact of these “tough on crime” approaches falls disproportionately on minorities, particularly African-American and Latino young men. While the average incarceration rate in the United States is 7 times the international average, for blacks the average rate is over 22 times the international average. For black boys who are born today, the Sentencing Project estimates that one in every three will end up incarcerated in their lifetime without an appropriate intervention. The problem is so bad that the Children’s Defense Fund has launched a campaign to address what it calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In addition to being racially discriminatory and counterproductive, this increase in incarceration is stunningly expensive. Since 1982, the cost of incarceration in this country has risen from $9 billion annually to over $60 billion a year.
The good news is that we now have an abundance of evidence demonstrating how we can move young people from a “cradle to prison pipeline” to a “cradle to college” or “cradle to jobs” pipeline. Scientific research reveals that a continuum of promising and evidence-based prevention and intervention programs for youth who are involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in gangs, crime and delinquency can significantly prevent and reduce crime in a cost-effective manner. Evidence-based and promising programs for teen pregnancy prevention, pre-natal care, new parent training, nurse home visits, Head Start, quality education, after-school programs, mentoring, job training, summer jobs and recreation, and college scholarships save more money than they cost when we account for the reduced incarceration, law enforcement and social welfare expenditures.
The Youth PROMISE Act brings together all of the stakeholders in the juvenile and criminal justice systems to develop locally-based comprehensive plans to implement promising and evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies to target young people who are involved in, or are at risk of becoming involved in gangs or the juvenile or criminal justice system, and to redirect them toward productive and law-abiding alternatives.
This bill simply addresses what research and analysis, as well as common sense, tells us – no matter how tough we are on the people we prosecute today, unless we simultaneously address the underlying reasons that they develop into serious criminals, nothing will change. We need prevention to reduce crime in the long term.
The Youth PROMISE Act does not spend more money than we already pay for criminal justice expenses and collateral consequences, like gunshot wounds. Instead, it saves money by reducing the need for many of these expenses. With the proven ability to generate such savings and reduce crime, we have to ask our elected officials why they would refuse to support programs we all know would work to both keep our kids on the right track and save victims and taxpayers from the impact of crime.
You have a critical opportunity to work in a bi-partisan fashion and make a critical difference for our country’s youth. The Youth PROMISE Act now has 235 bi-partisan co-sponsors in the House, 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, and is supported by over 250 national, state and local organizations. Cities and counties across the country have passed resolutions in support of the Act, as well as the National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Testifying about the Youth PROMISE Act before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security last summer, Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca stated, “The Youth PROMISE Act is the single most important bill ever to come before the United States Congress.”
There is absolutely no excuse for not passing the Youth PROMISE Act this Congress, but there are very few legislative days remaining. Act now. We must show our young people that we care about them too.