In his Nov. 6 Close to Home column ("Looking at reasons for youth crime"), David Sortino raised an important question: What contributes to juvenile crime? He suggested that inadequate moral reasoning by offending juveniles is a primary factor. If only it were that easy.
No single factor is responsible for delinquency and violence by our youth, and we simply cannot effectively help our youth by focusing on one remedial approach, such as moral reasoning.
Research confirms that the majority of first-time offenders are never prosecuted for a second offense. This ability to self-correct their behavior suggests that the majority of first-time offenders actually already have a moral compass from which they have situationally strayed.
We also know from numerous studies that there are many factors that contribute to criminal behavior, and they fall into six primary areas: poverty and racial and ethnic disparity; community conditions; family dysfunction; negative peer influences; early anti-social thinking, values, and beliefs; and even public opinion, laws and policies. All of these factors are cumulative, they interact with one another, and they are mutually reinforcing. Disregarding these complex factors that contribute to crime and suggesting a single silver-bullet approach minimizes and over-simplifies the experience and barriers that many youth have faced nearly all their lives and that influence their decisions and behaviors today. It is time that we, as a community, face the fact that there is much that we can do earlier in the lives of our youth to help them and their families address the barriers they face and build resiliency.
The Washington Institute on Public Policy provides the most comprehensive analysis about how to most effectively prevent crime. Its July 2011 report identifies 80 evidence-based options (51 of which are prevention-focused) that can help policymakers achieve desired outcomes as well as offer taxpayers a good return on their investment with a low risk of failure. These options are proven to reduce crime and to improve outcomes related to child maltreatment, education, earnings, mental health, public assistance, public health and substance abuse.
Effective prevention-related interventions to strengthen children and families include support to low-income first-time moms, high quality pre-school for disadvantaged children, family skills training for parents of school-aged children, programs to increase children's connectedness to school, early and effective management of disruptive behaviors, programs to teach parents how to prevent drug use, mentoring for elementary and junior high aged youth and school-based drug prevention programs in high schools. Note: These interventions all support children and families long before a child faces moral choices.
The upstream Investments policy sponsored by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is one communitywide effort that is supporting the healthy development of our children. Through Upstream Investments we are asking our whole community to invest early, invest wisely and invest together. When we significantly increase local, prevention-focused interventions that are backed by sound research evidence of effectiveness, and when we all do this together, then we as a community will be striving to provide opportunities for all of our children and youth to thrive. And we will reduce crime and other societal costs.
By leading this movement, our Board of Supervisors is demonstrating fiscal and moral responsibility and is making a true and long-term commitment to the health of our community. In so doing, we are following the vision of Frederick Douglass, a social reformer born in 1818, who already knew that "it is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men."
Clearly, we must all continue our important work with individuals who have already committed crimes in an effort to prevent reoffending. At the same time, we can each look for opportunities to promote evidence-based prevention activities. During this holiday season as you are reflecting on your work, your volunteer activities, and your donations, I encourage you to consider ways in which you can join us in investing early, investing wisely and investing together.
For more information I invite you to visit www.SonomaUpstream.org.
<i>Jo Weber is the director of the Sonoma County Human Services Department. She is retiring at the end of this month.</i>