I’m a lucky man.
People may know me for my college and NFL career on the gridiron: I attended UC Berkeley and played for the Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins. I was blessed by a career that was shaped by hard work, good coaching, and smart decisions.
But not always.
I was a high school dropout. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I did lack vision. As the old saying goes, “For lack of vision, our people will perish.” I couldn’t see my future, and I picked up some bad habits. The result was that I was easily on track to become a burden on society instead of a positive fixture.
I was fortunate that I had parents who never gave up on me, and caring mentors who were willing to guide me back into the right direction. With their help and intervention, I got myself back on track, finished high school, went to an outstanding college, and established myself as a leader on and off the field.
Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many of my friends and peers. I’ve seen too many youth left behind and shut out because they lacked a support system or proper guidance.
The sad fact remains that so many of our youth, who are good kids, are traveling in the wrong direction. They are subject to cultures and environments that limit their perspectives and diminish their vision for their futures.
A young man that I spoke to (I’ll call him “Andrew”) is one such kid. He is now considered an adult, but his actions are those of a directionless child. Andrew is a bright teen from a single-parent family who needed more daily interaction to build his self-esteem and help him reach his potential. He’s in a downward spiral, making bad decisions in a cycle that’s hard to break. Each decision has the potential to be life-changing for him, and perhaps for others.
Lots of kids don’t have the guidance that lets them make the same choice that I made—the choice to continue my education, which allowed me to learn and grow. It’s too easy for youngsters to get lost forever after getting caught up in the criminal justice system, only to become adults with no future.
Looking at Andrew and others I’ve known, I worry: I worry about the future of young girls and boys who are lost in a system that shades their vision and stunts their growth. I’ve seen many young people who wound up in a juvenile justice system that can cultivate a cycle of destruction and failure.
Congress can help assist these troubled young people in finding better options by reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).
I want us to commit the resources necessary to create fertile environments that teach kids positive behaviors that will make them grow and learn and prosper. I want all children to have the opportunity to succeed in spite of challenging circumstances. I’ve seen first-hand the effects those circumstances can have.
That’s why I agree with the many policymakers and experts who back reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime organization of more than 5,500 law enforcement leaders, endorses the measure. The law also enjoys support that transcends party lines. In this divisive era, reauthorization of the JJDPA could be the bipartisan success of 2016.
The JJDPA focuses on alternatives to custody that can put kids back on a path to a productive life, and away from a path to prison. The law provides federal support for evidence-based programs that fight to curb youth recidivism.
Research highlighted by the sports leader group Champions for America’s Future shows how impactful evidence-based programs can be. For example, a study of one intervention program that works with at-risk youth and their families, Functional Family Therapy (FFT), showed that youth who received FFT coaching were half as likely to be rearrested as those who did not.
Based on my experiences with young people, I firmly believe that providing support for family-centered, community-based interventions like FFT and others should be a point of emphasis for all of us. That support is a priority in the JJDPA bill that is currently before the Senate. I urge Congress to pass that bill and reauthorize the JJDPA.
These interventions can help make sure that kids learn better habits and behaviors, and that a troubled youth’s first brush with the law is also his last.