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Why juvenile incarceration reached its lowest rate in 38 years

The juvenile incarceration in the US rate has fallen 41 percent in the past 15 years, reaching the lowest level since 1975, a new study finds. What is behind the rapid decline?

By Staff writer / February 27, 2013

A juvenile offender is incarcerated at Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Mendota, Wis. The rate of juvenile detention in the US has dropped 41 percent in the past 15 years.

Richard Ross/AP/File

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Fewer young Americans are behind bars than at any point since 1975, partly because of lower rates of juvenile crime and a shift away from interventions focused on long-term incarceration.

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The number of young people in a correction facility on a single day dropped from a high of 107,637 in 1995 to 70,792 in 2010, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that used data from the US Census Bureau. The incarceration rate – the number of young people confined per 100,000 youths – dropped by 41 percent in the same period. 

The trend might be stronger than the data show, says Bart Lubow, director of the foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. Some of the biggest decreases in youth incarceration in some states have occurred in the past two years, and those numbers are not included in the report.

The main reasons behind the declining numbers:

  • A shift in thinking about the best ways to handle young people who break the law.
  • A sustained period of decreasing juvenile crime.
  • Fiscal pressures on state governments that have many people – including conservatives who, in the past, espoused tough-on-crime policies – clamoring for less-expensive alternatives to mass incarceration.

“It’s the confluence of all those factors” that has led to the sustained decrease, says Mr. Lubow, though he notes that the report shows big disparities between states.

Looking at the period between 1997 and 2010, for instance, seven states (Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Tennessee) saw their youth incarceration rates go down by 50 percent or more, while six (Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and West Virginia) actually bucked the trend and had increased rates for the same period.

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