FOR DECADES, Washington has been an indispensable partner to state and local governments in dealing with juvenile justice challenges. But that partnership — and the important advances it has brought — will be endangered if Congress gets its way.

The federal government awards grants to states and localities that adopt policies proven effective — and cost-effective — in preventing juvenile delinquency or in dealing with youths who run into trouble with the law. The amounts in question are a pittance when compared to the overall federal budget, but they are critical to maintaining sane juvenile justice policies. In fiscal year 2011, for example, the feds spent $54 million on delinquency-prevention programs on the state and local level. During the same period, the federal government sent roughly $62 million to states and localities to offset the costs of keeping incarcerated youths away from adults or to house them in youth-only facilities. These separation policies have helped to reduce the number of physical and sexual attacks on minors and shield youths from older and more hardened criminals.

House lawmakers would eliminate funding altogether for the delinquency-prevention component and cut the latter program by roughly one-third. The Senate approach is only slightly more palatable, with cuts of 27 percent and 38 percent, respectively, that would come on top of significant reductions over the past decade. The Obama administration is asking for an $18 million increase for the first program and an $8 million boost for the latter.

Delinquency prevention or diversion programs are significantly cheaper than incarceration. According to the American Correctional Association, states spent between $66,000 and $88,000 in 2008 to incarcerate each juvenile offender. The costs associated with imprisoning youths are substantially higher than for adults because of the additional services, including education, that incarcerated youths require. Incarceration may be appropriate for juveniles who commit violent offenses, but it is too often chosen for those who commit nonviolent infractions. The incidence of such counterproductive punishment will almost certainly rise if these federal funds are cut further.