What does it mean to be “tough on crime”?
As we moved away from the “crimequake” of the ’90s and watched the juvenile crime rate fall, the fear that once pushed us off the slippery slope and into a lock ’em up frenzy was replaced by evidence-informed policymaking that emphasizes community-based solutions. The calm after the quake has afforded us the opportunity to rethink what works in crime and punishment while simultaneously exposing hardliners who push a tough on crime mantra as shallow thinkers.
The irony of hardliners is that they pride themselves on being fiscally conservative while promoting public safety, but in reality they compromise public safety and at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.
But history has also taught us that the politics of fear can quash what we know works when hardliners sensationalize violent acts of kids, or when there are tremors of crime that may or may not precede another crimequake.
After Jerome Miller closed the Massachusetts training schools in the early ’70s, other states like Utah and Missouri followed suit. Studies proved the Massachusetts Experiment safer and cost effective, so it made sense for Utah to close its 450-bed training school when facing a lawsuit alleging abuse inside the school. Missouri followed suit and closed its largest secured facility. Both Utah and Missouri repurposed its monies to invest in evidence-informed community programming, and later studies showed both systems yielded better results for kids.
Yep, today’s trend of closing facilities and redirecting the cost savings to community solutions is not new. What is today’s trend was yesterday’s Massachusetts Experiment, buried in the rubble of the ’90s crimequake caused by the sensationalistic outcry that a wave of superpredator kids were on their way to wreak mayhem among our communities. This outcry proved too much for a trend still in its infancy.
But that was more than 20 years ago and the crimequake is in the distant past though not forgotten, like the scenes from a futuristic post-apocalyptic movie with buildings partially standing and the survivors trying to navigate through the broken rubble. When a quake strikes, fear chases away rational thought, and the fear of an impending wave of violent kids shattered rationality, causing a rubble of broken kids as young as 13 to languish in prison for the rest of their lives.
But in the calm of sharply declining crime rates since the mid-’90s, states have returned to the Massachusetts Experiment and its Utah and Missouri progeny to reduce reliance on the costly prisons and redirect those costs to less expensive community programs proven to work.
Consider that between 2007 and 2011, 18 states closed more than 50 facilities. For example, Texas, with its Lone Star image of independence and tough stance on crime, closed nine facilities between 2007 and 2012 and reduced the number of incarcerated youth from 4,700 to 1,500. Texas became the leader that inspired like-minded conservative states like my state of Georgia to reform its juvenile justice system.
When the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform discovered that it cost $91,000 annually to lock up a kid, and that 40 percent of the kids incarcerated were minimum risk, but that 65 percent reoffended after release, it was time to do the conservative thing and stop wasting the taxpayer’s money on an idea that sounds good but doesn't work.
Like Texas, Georgia stopped sending nonviolent kids to youth facilities with confidence that crime rates would not increase. Our confidence rested on the studies showing that incarcerating low-risk offenders creates a hyper-recidivism effect, the increase of reoffending among low-risk kids when exposed to criminogenic (crime-producing) environments (prison).
The hardliners, still warning that this return to the Massachusetts Experiment will result in another crimequake, ignore evidence to the contrary.
In the last decade, for example, 14 states saw declines in both incarceration and crime. New York reduced imprisonment by 26 percent, while seeing a 28 percent reduction in crime. Imprisonment and crime both decreased by more than 15 percent in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Eight states — Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah — lowered their imprisonment rates by 2 to 15 percent while seeing more than a 15 percent decrease in crime.
Now don’t get me wrong!
These declining crime rates among adults and kids alike may be riding what is a wave returning us to a normal state, where we were before the quake began. It also points to what we already know, which is what we don’t know: what caused the crime rate to increase, peak and dramatically decline.
We do know that efforts to deincarcerate did not cause the ’90s crimequake, just as the efforts to incarcerate did not cause the dramatic decline in crime.
And we also know that events just sometimes happen without explanation and when they do, we should be prepared to act on what we do know — to refrain from treating kids as adults. It didn’t work to reduce crime yesterday, and it won’t work in the future.
States may be resurrecting the Massachusetts Experiment in some form for four reasons:
- To settle lawsuits over abuses in facilities
- To help recover from the Great Recession of the last decade
- To pursue with genuine interest evidence-based systems
- a combination of all or some of these.
Even before the crimequake, the appeal in Utah and Missouri to replicate the Massachusetts Experiment was to reform abusive institutions. That appeal has regained its appeal in the post-crimequake era in states like Texas, California and Connecticut that were facing legal challenges for operating harsh juvenile facilities.
Other states were motivated by the cost savings of reducing bed space and turning to the far less expensive community programs to help get through the Great Recession. Suddenly the softer-looking approach to crime made sense to those historically entrenched in the tough approach, and so the costs won the day.
Then there are those states that embarked on reforms as the economy was recovering and were not under legal threat. I can attest from my several years on Georgia’s Reform Council that our deinstitutionalization efforts were driven by our governor’s political will to do better for our kids, a governor who once served as a juvenile court judge and vividly recalls the lack of community solutions.
Regardless of why a state embarked on the Massachusetts approach, the ends are the same — kids fare much better and communities are safer because of it.
So what if the selfless motive of doing what’s right played second to the selfish motive of money and lawsuits if in the end kids are treated as kids.
This is one time the ends do justify the means. I pray the ends will prove to all that the selfless motive was always justified in the first place.
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.