- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

With all the international, military and economic issues facing the 111th Congress and President-elect Barack Obama, one issue that may get overlooked is the rising trend of murders being committed by America’s youth. That oversight, left unchecked, could find the nation back where it was in the early 1990s at the height of the drug wars when cities were setting homicide records.

A report by Northeastern University professors James Alan Fox and Marc L. Swatt detailed the plight of numerous cities around the country (including Boston, the District of Columbia, Nashville, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Denver, to name a few) that recorded sizable double-digit percentage increases in homicides perpetrated by white and black teenagers and young adults. The numbers are higher among young black males. Mr. Fox and Mr. Swatt found that black male juvenile victims rose by 31 percent between 2002 and 2007. During that same period, the number of black male juvenile perpetrators of homicide rose by 43 percent. The report showed that more than 400 black teens between the ages of 14 and 17 died by shooting in 2007 and nearly 1,000 people in that age group used a gun to kill someone.

Dr. Robert C. Johnson, dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said combating this trend requires federal and state governments to examine the funding of existing programs. “Scared Straight, D.A.R.E. and boot camps just don’t work. I was involved in two studies, one at the National Academy of Sciences and another at the National Institutes of Health, and we found that many of the most popular programs either don’t work, don’t have a high level of effectiveness, and in some cases have a reverse effect,” he told The Washington Times. Bringing cops in to talk about drugs and gangs only encourages young people to get involved with them or piques their curiosity until they do. “The problem is that the things that work are the things that work for all youth problems like having dinner with your children, but how do you fund that?” Mr. Johnson said.

He is right. Better parenting is the first solution. Mr. Johnson has developed a program in Newark, N.J., counseling young parents. Mr. Obama said during the primary campaign that he wants to put about $10 billion a year for five years into such programs in 20 cities around the country. But then what do you do with a teenager who has committed a murder or another violent crime? Incarcerating minors in adult prisons, Mr. Johnson asserted, produces better, more ruthless criminals, rather than reformed, law-abiding citizens.

Bob Woodson, founder of The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, believes he has the solution to the latter problem figured out, but has labored unsuccessfully for more than a decade to get the support he needs. “When it’s Friday night and the child comes home and their possessions are on the street because their parents have been evicted, that child is not going to look to the social worker or police officer. They are going to look for the person whose cell phone number they have - the person who will present some positive influence and comfort for them right then. Often … the person that gives them a place to lay their head that night is the drug dealer or gang member,” Mr. Woodson told us.

His program then utilizes young adult volunteers, typically five to 10 years older, who have overcome the same challenges in the same environment and are now living productive lives. These volunteers work directly with the troubled youngsters. Mr. Woodson said that only adults with these backgrounds (and preferably from the same community) can persuade the youths to change their behavior. “They need these adults to be a constant influence in their lives and be there when they are needed, but we don’t fund the programs that do that, nor do we call to the table the people who are running them when the funding decisions are made,” Mr. Woodson said.

If Mr. Obama and Congress are serious about change and finding solutions to youth violence, they must first begin the process of scrubbing the budget of programs that by their own research have proven not to be effective and start anew with programs that are.

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