Juvenile incarceration rate has dropped in half. Is trend sustainable?

The number of juveniles committed to prison or other facilities dropped by 53 percent between 2001 and 2013, a new study found.

In this Monday, Oct, 26, 2015 photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor.

Over the past 12 years, the rate of juveniles committed to prison or other correctional facilities in the United States dropped by 53 percent, according to a new analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Combine that decline with a simultaneous drop in violent crime rates among juveniles, and you have a long-term trend that experts believe is both sustainable and a model for future reform of the adult criminal justice system. 

“I think once you have a 12-year trend, it sort of feels like it’s not just a blip,” says Jake Horowitz, state policy director for Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.

Taking data from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Pew calculated that the juvenile commitment, or sentencing, rate fell in 49 states between 2001 and 2013, with the rate dropping by 50 percent or more in 26 states. The rate increased only in North Dakota and the District of Columbia, Pew found.

Mr. Horowitz says he sees two principal reasons behind the steep decline: For one, the drop in juvenile violent crime arrests almost matches the drop in juvenile commitments. Secondly, state policymakers are increasingly interested in reforming their juvenile justice system to prioritize alternative forms of punishment over incarceration or commitment to residential facilities.

He thinks the decline is sustainable.

“There’s two great trends heading in the right direction here: less juvenile crime, and fewer kids in state correctional facilities,” he says. “States are finding they can move both numbers in the right direction, at the same time, and in significant numbers.”

The success of juvenile justice reform could also provide a blueprint for the country to achieve its goal of reducing mass incarceration, says Jason Ziedenberg, director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute.

“A way to do that would be to do what people are doing on juvenile side, which is divert more people, reduce the length of time people spend in the system, and invest in [sentencing] alternatives for people,” he says.

Connecticut the model

Connecticut is leading the way on juvenile justice reform. Its juvenile commitment rate dropped 75 percent between 2001 and 2013, the study found. A 2012 report from the Justice Policy Initiative credited the state for “more than any other state … fundamentally re-invent[ing] its approach to juvenile justice.” 

Furthermore, the report added, Connecticut’s reforms were accomplished “without any added financial cost, and without any increase in juvenile crime or violence.”

Among the state’s reforms – which began in earnest in 2002 – were changes in sentencing laws and the development of an array of new community-based supervision and treatment programs that saw a nearly 70 percent reduction in the number of youth placed in correctional and other residential facilities. That included all youths found guilty of “status offenses,” crimes like truancy that wouldn’t be illegal if committed by an adult.

“Connecticut’s success in re-engineering its juvenile justice system offers useful insights to leaders in other states and jurisdictions seeking to accomplish ambitious top-to-bottom reforms,” the report added.

Connecticut’s close consideration of adolescent neurological research is one specific approach experts are lauding around the country. It’s an aspect of juvenile justice reform that Mr. Ziedenberg says can help ensure the drop in juvenile commitments persists in the future, even if the drop in juvenile violent crime arrests doesn't. 

“Our challenge is going to be if crime rates were to go back up again, if we were to see nationalized some of what’s happened in a couple of cities,” he says, referring to crime spikes that have been occurring in cities like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

“In the past what’s happened is political will has shifted,” he adds. “We’ve seen people go to a more tough-on-crime space.”

But a deeper understanding of adolescent mental development – and the role it plays in juvenile crime – could help juvenile justice reforms withstand the kind of public panic over crime surges that bred the “tough-on-crime” laws of the 1980s and 1990s reformers are now trying to undo.

Adolescent neuroscience is becoming an increasingly important aspect of juvenile justice policy and practice. Universities from Harvard to Columbia are researching its importance, and the science has featured in recent high-profile court cases like the trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Lee Boyd Malvo, who helped carry out the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks when he was 17 years old. 

“There's research now that shows that young people, even up to age 25, make different decisions, have different thought processes, and are culpably different before the law than other folks,” Mr. Ziedenberg says. “I think that's really echoed among policymakers.”

Still room for improvement

Despite the progress made on the twin fronts of reducing both violent crime and the incarceration of juveniles, some experts would also like to see a drop in lower-level offenses. Josh Gupta-Kagan, an associate professor in the University of South Carolina School of Law, says reforms need to also address how juveniles who commit minor offenses, such as status offenses or nonviolent crimes, are treated by the juvenile justice system.

He points to the recent arrest of a girl at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. – which made national headlines due to a video of her violent arrest – as an indicator of the kind of arrest that might not lead to a commitment, but could still have a lasting impact, both professionally and emotionally, on an adolescent.

“While they're not likely to be detained, not likely to be committed to a juvenile jail, simply having that on their record is going to impose some lasting lifetime harms, and is going to increase the chance of later crimes and recidivism,” he says.

A 2014 report from the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that in 2010, 30 percent of juvenile offenders in the country were committed because of minor offenses like public order violations (e.g. disorderly conduct), technical violations (e.g. violating parole), and status offenses.

Various studies have shown that juvenile incarceration can damage a teenager’s chance of graduating from high school, and can increase the chances of recidivism and involvement in the adult criminal justice system.

A Pew report released in April found that “placement in correctional facilities does not lower the likelihood of juvenile reoffending and may, in fact, increase it in some cases.”

Among policymakers, Professor Gupta-Kagan says, “there’s a growing awareness that locking kids up doesn't usually lead to good outcomes for them.”

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