As a New York Times editorial noted recently, although the number of incarcerated juveniles is at a 35-year low, the US continues to lead developed nations in the number of young people it locks up. Incarceration has serious consequences for ex-offenders, including poorer health, lower earnings, and family breakup; thus many states have begun investing in more effective strategies to reduce delinquency. As Peter Greenwood explains in the Future of Children, "The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place."
The Future of Children says that the best evidence points to early intervention, including home-visiting programs aimed at pregnant teens and their at-risk infants, early education programs for disadvantaged young children, and school-based initiatives to prevent drug use and dropping out. Moreover, community-based programs that focus on the family and improving parenting skills have been shown to effectively deter young offenders from future involvement with the justice system.
In the Washington Post this week, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins urged politicians, educators, community leaders, ministers and parents to teach young people that the decisions they make as they transition to adults will greatly influence their circumstances later in life. He cited research showing that of US adults who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, only about 2 percent live in poverty and about three quarters have joined the middle class. Thus, investing more in prevention than incarceration should more effectively reduce delinquency and improve life outcomes for young adults. See the Future of Children issues on Juvenile Justice, Fragile Families, and School Readiness to learn more about this topic.