For decades, our response to juvenile crime has been much the same as our response to adult crime: Do the crime, do the time. This “tough on crime” mentality has done nothing to help get our young people back on track to becoming successful members of society.

Now we have an opportunity to take a different approach. The Youth PROMISE (Prison Reduction Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education) Act is moving through Congress, and with it comes a chance to invest in our nation’s most important human capital, our youth.

In the current political and economic environment, embracing the Youth PROMISE Act on the federal level has unique statewide relevance. If enacted, this bill would leverage Maine’s national leadership on evidence-based juvenile justice practices and attract millions annually to the state in federal funds.

The Youth PROMISE Act would facilitate local control of the funding stream and best practices in the field. Through statewide entrepreneurial policy initiatives, local Youth PROMISE panels and innovative organizations would help turn what the Children’s Defense Fund has called the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” into a “cradle-to-college-and-work catapult.”

In March, 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree signed on as a co-sponsor to the Youth PROMISE Act. We thank Rep. Pingree, along with the 111 other co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, for their forward thinking. (Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.) On the Senate side, then-U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe sponsored an earlier version of the bill in 2009.

Democratic Rep. Pingree and now-retired Republican Sen. Snowe have realized that the way forward in Maine is together – through bipartisan investment in our youth. Furthermore, they demonstrated political courage in the short run to sow seeds for long-term human preservation and growth.

In 2010, the Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force attracted the best and brightest in the field of juvenile justice to a unique symposium in Maine. Leading experts helped the task force – chaired by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley; Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, and then-first lady Karen Baldacci – produce a nationally recognized plan for stemming the rising tide of juvenile delinquency and gang violence in our state while saving up to $13 on every $1 invested.

Among noteworthy task force citations were scientific studies demonstrating that most youth “age out” of delinquency by the time they are 25 years old.

Putting kids in prison for minor offenses does not help the aging out process. Instead, young people with potential are tracked back into a life of crime. Perhaps that is why Maine’s judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and juvenile corrections officers have concluded that “48% of youth detained or committed to a secure facility would be better served elsewhere.”

If Gov. LePage, or anyone else, believes that a “get tough on crime” policy is the answer to the juvenile delinquency and gang violence epidemic, they need to carefully read the bipartisan Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force report and listen to what specialists on both sides of the political aisle have to say.

The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice indicates that the United States “now has the highest average incarceration rate of any nation in the world, by far.” According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Nationwide … an estimated 400,000 youngsters cycle through juvenile detention centers; and nearly 100,000 youth are confined in juvenile jails, prisons, boot camps, and other residential facilities on any given night.”

But this mass incarceration of our youth has done little to curb gang numbers. There are still an estimated 1 million gang members in the U.S. in 20,000 gangs.

In 2010, consensus developed in Maine regarding status quo juvenile justice polices: They just do not make sense. Then the political climate changed, the bipartisan Children’s Cabinet was disassembled and the Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force lost some wind in its sails. Yet the need for reform has not disappeared.

The Youth PROMISE Act will help us develop a better response by empowering communities to develop comprehensive prevention and intervention programs, rather than just locking more kids up.

Let’s make the Youth PROMISE Act a test of political will for the next cohort of politicians in our state. Contact U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King as well as 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud today in support of the Youth PROMISE Act (H.R. 1318 in the House and S. 1307 in the Senate) so that they’ll follow Rep. Pingree’s brave lead. It takes just minutes to send an email right from our lawmakers’ user-friendly websites.

— Special to the Press Herald