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PROMISE to prevent youth violence Kristine Aguilar | Sat, Dec 28 2013 12:00 PM

A recent report by SANDAG revealed that there are 158 gangs in San Diego County with approximately 7,500 documented gang members.  These gang members bring drugs, violence, and prostitution into our neighborhoods and local officials have observed an increased threat of violence in the past five years.  As most gang members begin their lifelong gang affiliation at the young age of 13, prevention is the key to decreasing violent gang activity in our communities.  

The Youth PROMISE Act (HR 1318/S 1307) is the Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act that focuses on decreasing juvenile delinquency, gang affiliation, and youth violence.  This bipartisan legislation would fund, implement, and evaluate an array of evidence-based, locally controlled youth and gang violence prevention and intervention practices.  It would create a PROMISE Advisory Panel of state representatives to aid in assessing community needs and resources, developing and enforcing program evaluation standards and overseeing implementation.  Furthermore, the Youth PROMISE Act would build on local strengths by partnering with colleges and universities as regional research partners by establishing a National Research Center for Proven Juvenile Justice Practices.

Essentially, this bill reduces the amount we spend on our broken system of corrections in favor of efforts that will substantially reduce the prison population.  We are spending upwards of $68 billion annually on corrections nationwide—a tremendous jump from the mere $7 billion spent annually during the 1980s.  This increase in spending coincides with the crack epidemic that swept through poor, urban neighborhoods in the 80s, thus sparking the “war on drugs.”  Prisons remain overcrowded to this day and for most, the cycle of recidivism is inescapable.  I have seen first-hand in my professional work as a case manager for high-risk parolees in San Diego that breaking the cycle of incarceration is seemingly impossible with the current system.  I often wondered how the outcome would differ if we were able to intervene sooner—provide mentoring, support, and education before these individuals cycle through our costly system of corrections.  This is precisely why I am so passionate about the Youth PROMISE Act.  

Not only does this legislation decrease juvenile incarceration, it actually saves money in the long run.  According to Virginia Representative and a lead sponsor of the Youth PROMISE Act Bobby Scott, similar plans implemented in 100 communities across the state of Pennsylvania saved an average of $5 for every $1 spent.  This cost savings comes from a decrease in housing prison inmates in favor of funding youth prevention and intervention methods in communities.

The diverse needs of each community in our large county differ greatly.  Youth in Chula Vista have different risk factors than those in Barrio Logan or Escondido, and under the Youth PROMISE Act, these varying needs and risks will be addressed within each respective community by local PROMISE Coordinating Councils composed of community members, parents and teachers, health providers and social services, courts and law enforcement, faith-based and non-profit organizations, and other stakeholders.  This is one of the many reasons why this bill has such diverse support—it allows for localized control.

The Youth PROMISE Act gives kids and teens the tools and support they need to keep them from falling into a cycle of crime and violence.  Growing up in the community of Otay, I witnessed acts of violence in my neighborhood as some of my peers succumbed to the gang lifestyle as early as age 11.  These were bright classmates that lacked the support and mentoring they needed to overcome the pressures around them.  I ask that you support the Youth PROMISE Act (HR 1318/S 1307) by contacting your representative and urging them to make this legislation a priority.

Aguilar is Master of Social Work Student at the University of Southern California.

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