5th time’s the charm with support from both sides of the aisle
You might think that after introducing a bill four times over the course of eight years, its sponsor would give up. Not so for Rep. Bobby Scott. The Democrat from Virginia has reintroduced the Youth Promise Act for the fifth time. After previously not reaching the House floor for a vote, the prospects for it being passed look good.
The act calls for providing “evidence-based and promising practices related to juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang activity prevention and intervention to help build individual, family, and community strength and resiliency to ensure that youth lead productive, safe, healthy, gang-free, and law-abiding lives.” In other words, keep kids out of prison.
So what would make the fifth time the charm? Those backing it. At first glance, they might appear to be an unlikely coalition. Liberal Democrats on one side and ultraconservatives such as billionaire Charles Koch on the other. They no longer want the U.S. to have the unenviable distinction of being the Incarceration Nation. At the end of 2013, there were 1,574,700 people in state and federal prisons. That’s more than those living in North Dakota and South Dakota combined.
In 2014, it was found that the U.S. had 5 percent of the world's population, but nearly a quarter of all of its prisoners. One out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated. We have more people locked up than any other country in the world by far. And at what cost? Billions every year.
Trey Gowdy, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, threw his support behind the bill. “As a former federal prosecutor, who saw the immense human toll and suffering at the back end of crime, I am convinced we must be committed to stopping crime before it happens. I applaud Rep. Bobby Scott’s work on this legislation to help us minimize the number of people and families victimized by crime and violence, improve services for at-risk youth, and save taxpayer dollars.”
Climate change in dealing with offenders
Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, a nonprofit pushing for criminal-justice reform, said how the country views best dealing with crime has changed. Law enforcement and correction officers now say, “You can either pay on the back end [for prisons and police], or you can pay for prevention on the front end.''
Giving weight to that argument was a report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. The growth in incarceration found was staggering. The academy urged “policymakers to reduce the nation’s reliance on incarceration and seek crime-control strategies that are more effective, with fewer unwanted consequences.”
Koch is backing reform especially for those without resources to fight prosecution. He wants to make sentences “more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”
On a somewhat different side of the political spectrum, Bill Clinton acknowledges his part in over-incarceration with the 1994 omnibus crime bill passed during his administration. That bill included the “three strikes” provision, which sent people away for life for violent crimes.
“Three strikes and you’re out” might be a fine rule in baseball. Not so much in the courtroom. Many judges have decried being denied using discretion, deciding a sentence on a case-by-case basis. In 1994, California passed its own three-strikes law that basically included life sentences for even minor crimes if there had been two previous convictions. People were being sentenced to life for trying to steal socks that cost $2.50.
Speaking about the federal law, Clinton said in a recent interview, "The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison. And we wound up . . . putting so many people in prison that there wasn't enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives."
The Youth Promise Act would funnel grants to local governments for programs that keep kids on the straight and narrow. Justice Department appropriations would provide the money, and no single grant would be more than $10 million a year.
Multisystemic Therapy certainly qualifies as an evidence-based program and has the stats and studies to back up how well it keeps at-risk youths at home, in school and out of trouble—and off the highway to adult incarceration.