Thomas Massaro, a private developer of affordable housing in Philadelphia, says he's seen young inner-city men ''do horrible, vicious, inhumane things. I've seen women and elderly people beaten senseless; I've seen stabbings, shootings.''
But ''a tender and responsive side'' can be cultivated in youths from the same neighborhoods, says Mr. Massaro, former housing director in Newark and Philadelphia who now hires at least 50 percent ex-convicts on his housing construction crews: ''Many of the same young men capable of doing such horrible things are also capable of doing wonderful things. Bond them into the community in an environment of rigid discipline. Make sure they have contact with family, church, mentors, supervisors that extends beyond the workday. Give them contact with successful adult black men -- mentors from churches, or coaches, or businessmen -- who encourage them when they're down, challenge them, believe in them.''
Construction work is perfect for these youths, says Mr. Massaro: painting, doing masonry work, they can see immediate results. What's more, he says, many ''hard core'' youth are the first to volunteer to work in soup kitchens, play with kids at a gym, help at a veterans' or nursing home. ''It gives them a sense of self-esteem because -- often for the first time in their lives -- they can help someone else.''
We've stood logic on its head in dealing with so-called ''at risk'' youth. Many fewer boys would be into drugs or crime if every troubled family could get health and child-care counseling, if we had 100 percent Head Start coverage and better schools and neighborhood-based recreation and mentoring programs.
But we claim all that's unaffordable. And then, as soon as teen-age boys get in serious trouble, we rush to put them behind bars in juvenile detention centers where the cost for each kid incarcerated is typically $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
It's a recipe for disaster. Most of the schools the juvenile centers run are unaccredited. The staffs are rarely competent. The juvenile centers all too often make troubled boys into hardened criminals. Most serious adult criminals are ''alumni'' of juvenile facilities, says Jerome Miller, director of the National Center on Institutions and Corrections.
Mr. Miller found a solution when he was director of youth services in Massachusetts 20 years ago. He closed the juvenile centers and spent the money on alternative, community-based care programs. From 2,000 institutionalized youth, the count dropped to 40. The share of the adult prison population made up of alumni of the juvenile justice system dropped from 55 percent to 20 percent by the early '80s.
If we moved now ''to unwind'' the juvenile incarceration system, says Mr. Miller, we'd avert future crime waves and soon dampen the nation's prison-building boom and the incarceration craze in which we now imprison young black males at four times the rate of South Africa.
Mr. Miller would identify the 10 percent to 15 percent of kids in juvenile facilities who've committed violent crimes, open a secure facility for them and focus hard on their long-term rehabilitation.
The big majority of youths being held, he says, should be moved back to their home communities with supervision. He'd approach community organizations such as black churches and offer them a chunk of the saved institutionalization costs in return for training staff, supervising a group of boys and being accountable for them.
Models the Eisenhower Foundation developed and tested for troubled youth across such communities as East Brooklyn, Liberty City in Miami, Boston's Dorchester, the South Bronx and Newark propose more structured social support and discipline to individual youth via mentors, counselors, big brothers and peers. Young people also need a supportive, nurturing, disciplined physical setting -- an ''extended family'' sanctuary off the street.
But solid funding is needed for all that to work -- there's a limit to what wholly voluntary efforts, such as neighborhood block watches, can do in drug- and crime-infected areas. And programs need to be linked, the Eisenhower Foundation insisted, to real opportunities for education, school-to-work transitions, job training and placement.
We know with certainty that these personalized, decentralized but systemic approaches increase young people's self-esteem, help them stay in school, get employable, avoid drugs and crime. They don't work for every youth, but they would make a stunning difference if we tried them comprehensively.
Compared with America's prevailing approach to these young people -- indifference, fear, then incarceration and criminalization -- there really ought to be no contest.
Neal R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.