Across the United States, juvenile arrest rates have reached 40-year lows, dropping precipitously over the past 20 years. As the national juvenile arrest rates have fallen in recent decades, so too has youth incarceration. States now have a choice: they can continue to invest in the detrimental and ineffective incarceration of youth, or reinvest in community-based alternatives that address the underlying causes of crime.
From its peak in 1996 to the most recent national data available for 2014, the U.S. juvenile arrest rate has fallen by 65 percent overall. In New York City, juvenile arrests fell by 51 percent from 2011 to 2015. In Texas, from the peak in 1994 to 2014, juvenile arrest rates for violent offenses dropped by 74 percent. In California, the nation’s most populous state, a recent report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that felony arrest rates of youth and young adults (19-24) dropped 42 percent from 2010 to 2015. Plus, these massive downward trends in California’s juvenile violent felony arrest rates are expected to continue through 2020.
While researchers are unsure why youth arrest rates have dropped so dramatically, it is clear by the parallel decreases in youth imprisonment that incarceration is not the reason. As the national juvenile arrest rates have fallen in recent decades, so too has incarceration of youth in the United States.
The 40-plus percent decrease in California’s youth arrest rate occurred when the number of youth in correctional facilities plunged 96 percent, from 1996 to 2015. The District of Columbia and 44 states saw decreases in youth incarceration from 1997 to 2010, with almost 20 states, including California and New York, seeing 40-plus percent decreases in youth incarceration.
These trends are being reflected in the adult criminal justice system too. A study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that from 2008 to 2013, most states reduced incarceration rates and experienced decreases in crime.
Data and research reports have shown us that mass incarceration is not causing the decrease in crime, but in fact yielding diminishing returns. An abundance of research has shown that incarceration has detrimental effects on the more than 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system who have experienced trauma or struggle with mental health problems.
For more information about Community-Based Alternatives, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Community-Based Alternatives
Rather than continuing to heavily invest in a system that has been proven not only ineffective crime reduction strategy, but that also repeatedly subjects youth to neglect, maltreatment and outright abuse, the nation and its states must invest in local alternatives to incarceration, community-based services and preventative measures.
Some states have already begun this effort. Recently, California (Proposition 47) and Oklahoma (State Questions 780, 781) enacted initiatives that reduced minor drug possession and petty theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, thus reducing sentences and state incarceration, and allowing the states to reinvest savings into substance use treatment and mental health care.
This reinvestment, will address the cause of problematic behavior rather than punishing public health emergencies.
New York City also recently implemented a measure in 2012 (“Close to Home”) to reduce incarceration of youth in distant, secure facilities upstate in favor of less restrictive, smaller facilities closer to young people’s families and communities. While recent declines in overall out-of-home placements may be attributed to continuing decreases in youth crime rather than the new program, Close to Home adheres to juvenile justice best practices, which find that small, nonsecure facilities close to a youth’s community allow for increased therapeutic success, rehabilitation and prosocial development.
Positive trends in youth crime and incarceration have mirrored improvements measured for other key indicators, including health, income, and education.
From 2008 to 2013, the number of high school students who did not graduate on time decreased by 28 percent; and from 2008 to 2014, the share of children without health insurance decreased by 40 percent, teen and child death rates dropped about 17 percent and teen birth rates decreased by 40 percent.
These positive youth trends, combined with the plummeting arrest rates and decreased need for incarceration, have established that juvenile justice systems across the country have an opportunity to change. Spending more than $7 million dollars per day to incarcerate youth in residential facilities to the detriment of youth wellbeing and overall public safety should be a mistake of the past.
Instead, state and local systems must reinvest in greater access to health care, education, mental health and substance addiction treatment for youth at the community level. Decades of youth incarceration have shown us that imprisonment is not a solution to the obstacles faced by youth; now we have the opportunity to try something new.
Erica Webster is the communications and policy analyst at the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
This column has been updated.