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Federal Youth Promise Act could cut prison costs in Arizona

“You do the adult crime, you do the adult time.” This is the motto of many judges, prosecutors, and even community members here in Arizona.

While this may seem like a useful way to prevent juveniles from committing adult crimes, it is failing our youth and our community. According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, in 2011 there were 42,071 juvenile arrests in Phoenix alone. Many of these arrests involved gang-related activity and other violent crimes.

It is this flawed view of juvenile crime prevention that may be increasing juvenile crime rates in our state. Unfortunately for many youth in Arizona, prevention comes in the form of mottos and threats or, worse yet, a fear of returning to prison.

The Youth Promise Act (Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education) H.R. 1318 & S. 1307 (assigned to a congressional committee for a hearing in March) aims to change the way we approach juvenile crime prevention and intervention. Its focus is to prevent juvenile delinquency, gang affiliation and youth violence before our youth enter the courtroom. This will be done through evidence-based, locally controlled prevention and intervention practices. Essentially this act intends to address the underlying reasons behind the criminal behavior.

This act will fund prevention and intervention practices based on the needs of each specific community. Essentially this act will take the needs of Glendale or Goodyear, for example, and assess their needs individually apart from the needs of Tucson or Flagstaff.

Within each community this act will create PROMISE advisory panels who will assess community needs and resources, as well as develop and enforce program evaluation standards and oversee implementation. These councils will include community and faith-based groups, schools, parents, youth, courts and law enforcement, health providers, social services, nonprofit agencies and many others. Furthermore, the councils will build on local strengths by partnering with colleges and universities as regional research partners and establish a National Research Center for Proven Juvenile Justice Practices.

Fundamentally, this act decreases the amount we spend on incarcerating juveniles in favor of substantially decreasing the prison population. The state of Arizona has $1 billion per year allocated to the cost of prisons. It costs approximately $24,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate in Arizona. This means that if each year we are able to keep 10 juveniles out of prison through the Youth PROMISE Act we will save the state of Arizona $240,000. This is astounding!

An example of the cost savings can be seen in Pennsylvania, which implemented a very similar program to that of the Youth PROMISE Act. The savings resulted in approximately $5 for every $1 it spent.

The Youth PROMISE Act provides tools, resources, and support for our youth, which they so desperately need to stay out of gangs and prison. Please join me in supporting the Youth PROMISE Act by contacting your representatives today and urging them to support this very important piece of legislation.

Aimee Wickersham of Goodyear is a student at the University of Southern California.

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