An Ounce of Prevention = A Pound of Cure for Youth Offenses

Eric Martyn
November 12, 2013

It is often said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to public safety, this old axiom rings especially true. That is why more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general, and victims of violence who are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids all share a common belief that the most effective crime fighting strategies are those that emphasize efforts to keep at-risk children away from crime and help troubled youth get back on track when they begin to offend. Not surprisingly, the data confirm what our members know from years of experience.

Year in and year out, we find that the greatest numbers of offenses are committed by those between the ages of 18 and 21. While these are statistically the "prime crime years" of an offender's life, the reality is that these young adults do not simply wake up on their 18th birthday involved in the criminal justice system. There are a multitude of factors that these individuals experience, from birth through adolescence, that impact their life trajectories and alter their propensity to engage in criminal behavior.

Given what we know, focusing on prevention efforts that target at-risk youth before they reach the "prime crime years" is a winning strategy for not only ensuring safer communities, but also improving outcomes for vulnerable youth and their families. Involvement in high-quality early childhood programs can start a child's trajectory along the right path, but sometimes, due to any number of risk factors, youth become involved in the criminal justice system. While in some instances removal from the community is the appropriate sanction, there are many alternatives that, in the right circumstances, can help troubled youth get back on track.

Several intensive therapeutic approaches exist that have shown through research to have significant crime reduction outcomes. For example, one program, Family Functional Therapy (FFT), engages and motivates youth and their families to change behaviors that often result in criminal activity. The program is geared towards moderate- to high-risk teens with delinquency, aggression and/or substance abuse problems. FFT can be used for youths on probation, in lieu of confinement, or for youths returning to their families from such confinement. Studies of the program have found that youths whose families received FFT were half as likely to be re-arrested as similar youth who did not.

The program also provides tremendous return on investment.  By reducing recidivism among juvenile offenders, FFT saves the public an average of $30,000 per youth treated. Other evidence-based approaches like Multisystemic Therapy (MST) and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (FFT) yield similarly impressive results.

For nearly four decades, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has reminded us that our treatment of juveniles has a lasting impact on public safety. From its very beginnings, JJDPA has supported-- and continues to support-- state and local to efforts to prevent juvenile delinquency. Through the establishment of the Title V Local Delinquency Prevention Grants program in 1992, JJDPA became home to the first and only federal funding source dedicated solely to the prevention of youth crime and violence-- a distinction that it still holds today. For years, JJDPA has provided an avenue of support for evidence-based prevention and intervention programs like MST, FFT, and MTFC.

JJDPA matters to law enforcement for many reasons. For the thousands of law enforcement leaders who are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, it matters because of its vast potential to support evidence-based programs that can keep at-risk youth away from crime and help make our neighborhoods safer.

This is part of the ACT4JJ Campaign's JJDPA Matters Blog Project, a 16-week series that launched Sept. 10, 2013. You can find the full series at the JJDPA Matters Action Center.

Eric is a Senior Federal Policy Associate with Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (FCIK). Before joining FCIK, Eric worked with the Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) where he assisted staff in their efforts to implement the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. Prior to that, Eric worked in the Office of Congressman Albert R. Wynn. Eric attended the University of Maryland at College Park where he received a BA in Criminology.