The interest in criminal activity in our culture is confirmed by the popularity of true crime shows. You couple that with all of the crime we see in the news and you might think that senseless violent crime is rampant among our youth. But reality paints a much different picture.
According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, juvenile arrests for all crimes peaked in the mid-1990s. Since then, the rate has dropped to its lowest point in 40 years.
A 2013 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare foundation, found that the single day high of 107,637 kids in a correctional facility came in 1995. That number hit a low of 70,792 in 2010.
Bart Lubow, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, says there’s reason to be even more optimistic, because some of the largest incarceration drops have come in the two years after the report concluded.
Why is juvenile crime dropping? Good news is good news, so we should appreciate it at face value, but it’s also important to try to figure out what may be causing this downward trend, so we can learn from it and adopt further measures to keep those numbers as low as possible.
There isn’t a consensus on why juvenile arrests are down. Some suspect state budget problems may be partly the reason. Others attribute tougher state laws that were enacted in the 1990s as a response to the spike in juvenile crime. These laws shifted juvenile courts from rehabilitation towards punishment.
While not directly addressing the harsher penalties as a deterrent theory, Jeffrey Butts, head of the Research and Evaluation Center at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that juvenile crime is down across the board.
“It appeals to policymakers and elected officials to think that states are getting better due to their own efforts, but crime is coming down everywhere,” said Butts. “The real question is not who’s responsible and why did this happen, but if it does not continue to come down, what do we do in terms of policy and practice?”
While the downward trend is certainly welcomed news, Butts brings up a good point. The trend needs to continue much further, especially when you place the statistics in contrast with the other countries in the developed world:
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Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, brings us this scary perspective from her research:
“The greatest predictor of adult incarceration and adult criminality wasn’t gang involvement, wasn’t family issues, wasn’t delinquency itself,” Bernstein says. “The greatest predictor that a kid would grow up to be a criminal was being incarcerated in a juvenile facility.”
So, if this is true, if we want to lower prison populations as a whole, we need to start with preventative measures at an early age and reconsider jail time for minor offenses, some of which include loitering and skipping school.
While there isn’t a clear explanation for why juvenile crime rates have been dropping, the positive results are what matters most. Even if the causes remain elusive, there is strong evidence for what we shouldn’t be doing — treating incarcerated adults and juveniles the same.
If it’s true that simply being incarcerated makes juveniles much more susceptible to be repeat criminals with their entire lives ahead of them, then reform needs to be enacted with regards to how they are treated while behind bars.
If children or teenagers end up being incarcerated, treatment cannot be the same as with adult inmates. Since juvenile brains are still developing, they react to environmental factors differently than adults.
In April 2016, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed major reform into law for the state’s juvenile justice system. It shifts focus from detention to treatment solutions for low-level juvenile offenders.
nationwide progress will continue with a two-pronged approach. Continue the preventative efforts that appear to be positively impacting the incarceration rates, but also explore new ideas.
Second, take the neurological findings seriously, and develop policies that address the unique needs of the still-developing minds of our at-risk youth.