Are We Too Quick to Claim Credit for Falling Juvenile Incarceration Rates?

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The youth justice field is in a celebratory mood. Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Justice Policy Institute released major reports on the declining rate of juvenile incarceration in the United States. On a per capita basis, juvenile confinement is down more than 40 percent compared with the mid-1990s. In some states, the numbers are even more striking, with declines of 66 percent in Tennessee, 65 percent in Connecticut, and 56 percent in Louisiana.

Why is this happening? A consensus emerged in recent months. Juvenile justice advocates and practitioners see falling incarceration rates as products of reform. Juvenile courts, probation departments, and youth services agencies — so the argument goes — are using community-based rehabilitation programs rather than locking up young offenders. Numerous articles and op-eds in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and other national papers echo these claims.

As we celebrate falling incarceration numbers, those of us who work in juvenile justice should take a few moments to contemplate the true origins of the decline. We venture onto thin ice — empirically — if we conclude that incarceration is down because of changes in practice and policy.

Incarceration numbers follow the crime rate. As I demonstrated in a recent data brief, the decline in youth incarceration is largely consistent with the crime drop. More important, placement decisions in juvenile court are generally unchanged. The proportion of juvenile court cases resulting in out-of-placement is about the same today as it was in 1995. When juvenile crime numbers drop 40 percent in 15 years, it makes sense that juvenile incarceration numbers fall as well.

We all love good news, but it could be risky to claim the credit. After all, if we in the juvenile justice field claim that we caused the drop in incarceration with intentional reform, it will be fair to blame us if crime numbers rise in the future. “See what you did,” the usual conservative interest groups will say, “you asked us to reduce incarceration and now look — youth crime is going back up!”

In claiming the recent trends as the effects of reform, we also risk complacency. If we think that we already “got this,” we may miss a critical opportunity to lock down recent gains and create a permanently different way of thinking about youth justice.

The best research suggests that incarceration was never really effective in terms of public safety. We went on an incarceration binge in the 1980s and 1990s not because we thought it was smart and effective, but because rising crime numbers frightened us and we had not worked very hard to design and implement better solutions. It is not clear that things are all that different today.

The litmus test for youth justice reform is whether we can maintain our course even in the face of another crime scare, and not the fact that we use less incarceration during a time of falling crime.

Congratulating ourselves for the incarceration decline at this point in time is a bit like me boasting that I lost 10 pounds following a bout with the flu. Sure, I made genuine progress toward my goal weight, but does anyone doubt what will happen if I fail to change my diet and exercise habits?

When it comes to juvenile justice, I wonder if we have really changed our incarceration habits.

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