Rescuing delinquents: private agencies do it best, anyway

Juvenile delinquency rehabilitation isn't dead; it's just in a state of remission waiting to be revived by the private sector. That's a hard admission to make for a longtime liberal who grew up believing that good intentions and a well-funded alphabet agency could solve almost any social problem.

In retrospect, it is clear now that Americans have traveled too long under the misapprehension that today's young tough only needs some good, old-fashioned eye-to-eye counseling to awaken guilt feelings strong enough to change an errant life style. Somehow those peer pressure sessions, where the kids sat around in a circle loudly decrying both their crimes and their mothers, worked better in the past. Somewhere we missed the signpost, and it's now time for those flinty conservatives to show us the way.

The focus, however, shouldn't be on all that hard talk coming out of congressional committees and task forces about using the armed forces to intercept drug smugglers, imposing preventive detention, building more prisons, and lengthening jail sentences. We ought to stop deluding ourselves. Unless a strong impact is made on the 12-to-16-year-old, those solutions are little more than nostrums to fill the air.

The answer lies in the private sector where, in the past several years, companies and businesses have designed and implemented effective juvenile rehab programs while the bureaucracy has compounded failure upon failure. In Florida, for example, a Ft. Lauderdale builder bored with sitting on his yacht set up a string of marine science and technology programs (Associated Marine Institutes) that train delinquents in seamanship and involve them in marine ecological projects.

Our failure stems from taking the easy way of throwing tons of money at serious problems and then waiting for a miracle to happen. During the decade of the 1970s, with $9 billion expended by the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, there were no miracles and rarely even a pleasant surprise. Now with the spigot being turned off by the Washington budget slashers, a reassessment is in order. Probably we need to develop a work ethic and train delinquents how to cope rather than seek to reverse the sociological or psychological causes for their misbehavior.

Government bureaucracy -- federal, state, or local -- simply lacks the initiative, the drive, the spirit and whatever other intangibles are necessary to modify antisocial behavior. In every state of the union the few programs that work have been established by private agencies who run them and obtain funds either from private sources or by contract with the government.

Why not take that handful of programs with a proven record, encourage the private sector to design additioinal models and then replicate them throughout the country? Funding could be provided by the private sector through a solicitation of the Fortune 500 industrialists and private foundations. All that is needed from the government is some initial seeding that would establish a clearinghouse via a national body such as the US Chamber of Commerce and formation of a governing board of experts to include representatives from organizations such as the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, YMCA. Big Brothers, American Bar Association. With 100 of these national industrial organizations, each contributing $1 million to cover a program for three years, positive results would soon emerge. The concept of no longer relying on government to solve all our social problems would begin to gain credence.

Involving 100 organizations is hardly enough but we would have a new direction to follow. What's in it for big business? Plenty. The $1 million amounts to only two or three TV advertising budget commercials and would create tremendous goodwill for business. Each industrial organization could identify with the specific rehab program and point with pride at the results, something that would not go unnoticed by the consumer.

This is an opportunity to escape layers of bureaucratic interference, to design new approaches, and to offer a visible presence of hope.

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