Give vouchers to rehab poor juvenile delinquents

President Bush has just submitted an education package to Congress that endorses the use of vouchers for students in failing schools.

While the concept of vouchers has provoked concern among supporters of the public schools, it nonetheless raises important questions about the role of public and private institutions in providing services.

Proponents of educational vouchers contend that it is unfair for the largely low-income and minority student population in inner-city schools to be subject to limited educational opportunities.

Their proposed remedy would permit these students to have greater access to private educational resources that have been largely unavailable to them.

If the voucher movement represents a genuine commitment to equal opportunity, though, why limit its scope to schooling? One obvious avenue of expansion would be the juvenile justice system.

As is true for inner-city public schools, the children populating the juvenile justice system are overwhelmingly low-income minorities.

This is not because middle-class children don't misbehave or commit crimes. Studies indicate that juvenile offenses cut across class lines.

The difference is that the crimes of middle-class children are by and large addressed with private resources, and less by the public justice system.

Suburban kids who develop a drug problem, for example, go to insurance-reimbursed treatment clinics, not to juvenile hall. Those who shoplift or engage in school vandalism often have the family resources to compensate the victims. And on the rare occasions when their criminal actions do land them in the juvenile justice system, a wealth of legal and social- services talent is at their disposal to achieve a nonpunitive resolution.

The response to similar behavior among low-income children in recent years has been quite different. As political concern about juvenile crime has escalated, the historically rehabilitative nature of the juvenile court has been largely eviscerated.

More juveniles are now tried as adults, punishment has replaced rehabilitation as a goal, and there is no longer a sense of mission that children need to be treated differently from adults.

Despite research that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these approaches, political momentum at the state and national level contributes to ever-harsher approaches.

What would happen if we expanded the use of vouchers to low-income juvenile offenders? As is done in education, the state could set aside the amount of funding that would normally be used to process a case through the juvenile justice system - generally hundreds if not thousands of dollars - and issue vouchers for the child's family. These could then be used to purchase services that would not otherwise be available.

Thus, a teenager who has a substance-abuse problem would not need to get on a waiting list for a publicly supported program, but could enter into a high-quality treatment program. A learning-disabled student might need to engage a private tutor for educational support. Or a family could decide that private counseling would aid in coping with a difficult teenager.

Certain limits would need to be placed on such a policy, of course. Some juvenile offenders, a relative handful, present a threat to public safety and may need to be detained. And certain parameters would need to be established to determine what constitutes an appropriate use of voucher services.

These decisions might vary from one community to the next, but they hardly present insurmountable obstacles.

The main objection to such a proposal, no doubt, would be that it would deprecate the seriousness of criminal activity. But we rarely hear this concern when the behavior of middle-class kids is under discussion.

Instead, we implicitly recognize the most appropriate means of preventing future criminal activity is to address the underlying factors that led to the behavior in the first place. And in the vast majority of cases, this turns out to be exactly the right approach.

Criminal behavior among teenagers is by and large a fleeting activity over the course of a few years. As soon as the kids grow up, go to college, or get jobs, most get on the right track.

If we are seriously going to look to the use of vouchers to purchase services in the private sector, why not take a broad view of the problem.

It may turn out that some of the solutions are actually right at hand.

Marc Mauer is the assistant director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, and the author of 'Race to Incarcerate' (The New Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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