Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams proposed rolling back his state’s raise the age law that, in 2017, had moved 16- and 17-year-olds out of New York’s violent Rikers Island jails and into its more rehabilitative family court.
Connecticut’s House of Representatives passed legislation in April cracking down on youth accused of car theft. And in July, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed moving youth from his juvenile justice facilities into the notorious Angola prison.
Proposals like these around the country have child advocates fearing that, once again, perceived increases in crime, a frightened public, and ne’er-do-well politicians seeking electoral advantage will unleash an unwarranted crackdown on kids.
But now is no time to yield to mythology about youth crime and reverse hard-won juvenile justice reforms.
That’s because a report released this month by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) revealed something that many may find hard to believe—youth crime is down, and down sharply.
The report found that, since 1996, youth arrests are down 84 percent. Violent juvenile arrests peaked in 2006 and are down by two-thirds since. In 1980, youth accounted for 20 percent of all arrests nationally; in 2020, youth accounted for only 6 percent of arrests.
This is not because of a crackdown on young people. Quite the opposite. After youth were vilified by politicians and the media during the 1990s, there has been a significant turnabout in how we treat young people since 2000.
The number of kids incarcerated in adult facilities has dropped by 70 percent and the number of young people in youth prisons has declined by 66 percent.
That’s right, as we’ve gotten more rational about our approach and have less, not more, youth crime.
That should surprise no one. Youth prisons in the United States have a poor record of brutality and failure, only exceeded by the failure of putting kids in adult prisons.
In 1994, OJJDP conducted a study of 995 youth prisons concluding that there were “substantial and widespread” problems with living space, health care, security, and suicide prevention.
In a pair of studies in 2011 and 2015, the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzed litigation and media exposés of youth prisons from 1970 to 2015, uncovering evidence of systemic maltreatment in almost all states. Not surprisingly, youth prisons produce dismal outcomes, accelerating rearrests, increasing mental health problems, and reducing educational achievement.
Sending kids to adult prisons is even worse. Youth in adult facilities are more likely than adults to be sexually assaulted and are five times as likely to commit suicide as youth in juvenile detention.
The Centers for Disease Control found that youth tried as adults are 34 percent more likely to be arrested for felonies than youth with similar prior records tried as juveniles.
We have seen this movie before.
During the 1990s, people on both sides of the aisle warned of a wave of juvenile “superpredators” set to engulf our country. Every state made it easier to try juveniles as adults, share their arrest records, or both. A quarter million young people were tried as adults annually during that time, and youth prison populations hit 109,000 in 2000.
This happened despite the fact that juvenile crime had begun what would be come more than a two-decade long slide. Why might this be?
In 2001, Lori Dorfman and I conducted a meta-analysis—a study of studies—of 77 high quality research papers on media coverage of crime, race, and youth. We found that, despite the decline in youth crime, policies and public opinion were driven by exaggerated media coverage, often prompted by either high profile, idiosyncratic crimes, political posturing, or both.
For example, between 1993 and 1999, homicides by youth declined by 68% and were at their lowest rate since 1966. Yet 62 percent of the public believed that youth crime was on the rise.
One study found that, although youth comprised 14% of all arrests in California in 1993 (that percentage is way lower now), 68 percent of local TV news stories about violence in California involved youth. No wonder the public and policymakers were confused.
The past 20 years have witnessed an unprecedented reduction in youth incarceration alongside a decline in youth crime, as practitioners and advocates have safely worked with young people at home, instead of in toxic prisons.
That is a successful formula that we tinker with at our peril.
Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab, former Commissioner of New York City’s Departments of Probation and Correction and former Director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.