Over the past decade researchers have identified intervention strategies and program models that reduce juvenile delinquency and promote pro-social development. However, while we have more than ten years of solid research about evidence-based programs, only about five percent of eligible youth participate in these programs.
The result is a waste of human capital and money. First, delinquency increases the risk of drug use and dependency, school drop-out, incarceration, injury, early pregnancy, and adult criminality. Second, since most adult criminals begin their criminal careers as juveniles, preventing delinquency prevents the onset of adult criminal careers and thus reduces the financial and emotional burden of crime on victims and on society.
Put bluntly — it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to implement evidence-based programs. While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat 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.
States don’t implement evidence-based treatment programs for a number of reasons.
First, agencies rarely invest in developing data systems that permit them to monitor which programs are working and which are not; therefore, most states’ juvenile justice systems have no idea if they are spending their money wisely.
Second, many policymakers are often unaware of research evidence on programs and policies that are not only effective in reducing juvenile delinquency but also cost-effective.
Third, often what works is at odds with “get tough on crime” public sentiment, and some policy makers are unwilling to choose evidence over politics.
Researchers have identified a dozen "proven" delinquency-prevention programs. Another twenty to thirty "promising" programs are still being tested. The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place, divert first-time offenders from further encounters with the justice system, and emphasize family interactions. A full list of programs that have been evaluated for delinquency prevention and intervention and an estimation of their cost savings and effectiveness can be found in Table 2 in an article by Peter Greenwood in our most recent volume of The Future of Children.
Reform of the juvenile justice system makes sense from all perspectives. Many states are poised to begin this work today, if for no other reason than to save taxpayer money being spent on building prisons. We need to create a system that decreases the number of youth becoming delinquent in the first place and prevents those youth who do stray from becoming adult criminals.