This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 4, 2012

Juvenile crime has been dropping for many years in a row. That’s good news because it means fewer victims and safer neighborhoods. One interesting factor in the falling crime rate has been that we lock up fewer juveniles. That’s right – the crime rate is dropping at the same time we are putting fewer youngsters behind bars. And that makes sense once you think about it. Several police chiefs and sheriffs have asked, “Lock up a 13-year-old with murderers, rapists and robbers, and guess what he’ll want to be when he grows up?”

Despite this great progress in lowering crime among youths, some are calling for locking up more juveniles, and some are even trying to give prosecutors the authority to place youngsters in adult courts without even having a court hearing on the decision. If a prosecutor doesn’t think his case is strong enough to convince an independent judge, shouldn’t we be concerned that that might not be a good decision?

The dangers of placing teens in adult prison are well documented. They are more likely to be raped, assaulted, and to commit suicide. And it is more dangerous for the community as well. Dr. John di Iulio, a noted conservative researcher, wrote, “(m)ost kids who get into serious trouble with the law need adult guidance. And they won’t find suitable role models in prison. Jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.”

We and our colleagues at Right on Crime want to be clear: We believe that public safety has to be a top priority and that young people have to be held accountable. However, we want to make sure that the steps we take actually result in a reduction in crime.

Fortunately, Virginia has been very successful in doing that. The Annie E. Casey Foundation worked closely with 10 Virginia counties to safely reduce the number of youth held in pretrial detention. Their report found that incarceration in juvenile institutions does not reduce future offending. Also, the study found these facilities damage youths’ prospects for future success, and these facilities are far less cost-effective than many supervision and treatment alternatives for all but the most dangerous youths.

In fact, the Casey report found that states that lowered their youth confinement rates 40 percent or more from 1997 to 2007 saw a sharper drop in juvenile violent crime arrests than states that increased juvenile confinement rates or decreased them more modestly.

Nonetheless, Virginia allocates 40 percent of its juvenile justice budget – more than $80 million per year – to operate juvenile corrections facilities. That’s more than seven times what it spends on local treatment and supervision programs that are alternatives to incarceration – even though those alternatives make us safer.

For instance, 68 percent of the youth committed to Virginia’s juvenile correctional centers last year were in need of mental health treatment. Yet, rather than being provided with the mental health services they need in their home communities (at far less cost), they ended up in correctional facilities.

Virginia can achieve much better outcomes for youths and keep the public safe with huge net budget savings by shifting some youth to community-based, family-oriented interventions for mentally ill youth offenders. In particular, there is a significant need for mental health crisis response services and proven treatment models that produce far better recidivism outcomes than incarceration at a fraction of the cost. Virginia’s juvenile correctional centers are neither the most effective nor a fiscally responsible safety net for youth with mental health needs.

Crime – and youth crime in particular – should be dealt with by leveraging the power of families and communities to reform troubled youths whenever possible. This is best done through giving localities the flexibility they need to place more youth into rigorous, effective community-based programs and providing them with necessary mental health treatment, rather than costly and ineffective state institutions.

To be smart on youth crime, Virginia’s leadership needs to reverse its overreliance on the failed incarceration model and shift toward proven, cost-effective alternatives. Doing so will turn today’s troubled and frequently mentally ill youngsters into tomorrow’s productive, law-abiding participants in Virginia’s work force.

By Marc Levin & Pat Nolan