At a conference on gang awareness and prevention that I attended last week, I heard folks from a local community service board speak about their work supporting youth in the community through in-school and after school programs. They showed video testimonials from some of the youth they worked with, and it was just amazing to hear these teens’ heartfelt words about the CSB personnel and the impact they had on these young people’s lives as tutors, mentors, role models, and trusted sources of support and advice. These were for the most part high-risk youth, growing up with a number of factors against them – poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, unstable family lives, constant exposure to drugs and alcohol, and more – making the impact of the CSB’s work even more valuable. One girl, breaking into tears, said that this group saved her life.
And it got me thinking…
In Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article “The Hot Spotters”, he talks about how medicine’s primary mechanisms of service, the doctor visit and the E.R. visit, are vastly inadequate for people with complex problems, comparing them to “arriving at a major construction project with nothing but a screwdriver and a crane.”
In some ways, I feel like the way we handle young people in this country is like that too. On one end, you have the regular public education system, which is fine for those of us lucky enough to have grown up in a stable family and neighborhood environment, with all our basic needs and much besides that met. On the other end, you have the highly punitive criminal justice system, which some would argue is necessary to keep dangerous youth off the streets.
I have many qualms about the latter point, but that notwithstanding, there’s still a major problem here: both systems are vastly inadequate for the vast majority of high risk youth in this country, who need one-on-one mentoring and support, consistent role models and safe spaces, etc. that organizations like the CSB I mentioned above provide. This could result in a much healthier, happier, better-educated population of youth that are far more likely to break through the cycles of poverty, substance abuse, etc. that often contribute to their behavior. Neither the traditional education system nor a punitive approach is going to the trick for these youth.
In addition to being punitive, the criminal justice system makes it incredibly hard for young people to get back to living happy, healthy lives – their criminal records make it hard to become gainfully employed and the system does very little to help address the root causes of criminal behavior, and provides little in the way of education or job skills. And as this recent Pew Report details, more than four out of 10 adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release, suggesting that “the system designed to deter them from continued criminal behavior clearly is falling short”.
Gawande points out in “The Hot Spotters” that if we recruited staffs of primary-care doctors and nurses and social workers, based right in the neighborhoods where the costliest patients lived, staff expenses would be more than covered with the tens of millions of dollars in hospital bills that could be saved.
Similarly, if we recruited staffs of mentors, tutors, social workers, educators, and prevention specialists, based right in the neighborhoods where the highest risk youth lived, expenses would likely be more than covered by the money saved in criminal justice expenses.
Seems like an investment worth making, doesn’t it? If I haven’t convinced you yet, more on U.S. criminal justice statistics and ways to support youth coming in Part II!