Increase in Homicides Unlikely to Derail Juvenile Justice Reforms, Observers Say

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Police lightsWASHINGTON — An increase in homicides in major cities across the country this year is unlikely to hamper juvenile justice reform efforts, say advocates and analysts.

As cities grapple with the problem, observers say they have not seen teenagers scapegoated or a significant push for tough-on-crime policies that run counter to reforms that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation.

“There hasn’t been a vilification of young people,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Analysts cautioned the causes of the homicide spike and its longevity are not yet known.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on what we’re seeing right now,” said Sam Bieler, a research associate in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute.

Nationwide, crime in the nation is on the decline, including violent crime among juveniles. The federal juvenile violent crime index arrest rate in 2012 was as low as it has been since at least 1980.

In the past, juveniles have sometimes been front and center in debates on crime, during both real and perceived spikes in violence.

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In some cases, there’s a focus on juveniles because of a broad trend, such as the rise in violent crime during the 1980s and early 1990s that fueled policy changes reformers are still trying to reverse. Other times, a teenager commits a shocking crime that is sensationalized.

“Generally, public reaction to violence is more in reaction to high-profile incidents than statistics. People don’t know them, or even believe them if they do,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

When the public does become more aware of an increase in violence, there is a tendency to overestimate the role of teenagers, including by politicians, he said.

Krisberg doesn’t see that dynamic in the current conversation about crime. He also doesn’t anticipate a backlash against juvenile justice reforms, because so many stakeholders agree change is necessary.

“The messages, the accurate, data-driven messages, have gone out to a lot of people in a lot of places,” he said.

Officials are increasingly aware that reform can save money and help juveniles, most of whom do not commit violent offenses, said Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. She agreed they’re unlikely to suddenly swing in the opposite direction.

“I would hope that we are now in a place as a country where the people making the laws realize that one headline shouldn’t change how we treat kids,” she said.

When officials don’t have a clear explanation for an increase in crime but still need to respond to the needs of their community, their position can fuel speculation, Bieler said.

“When we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at, you see people swinging blindly to see if they can find the response,” he said.

It’s important to wait for data that can show what’s really happening, Bieler said. But waiting to come to a firm conclusion about a crime increase doesn’t mean doing nothing in the meantime, he said.

Communities need help dealing with the trauma of violence, and people who are affected by violence can offer valuable perspectives about what’s going on around them, he said.

“You should have young adults at the table, you should have juveniles at the table. They are going to have a lot of insights,” Bieler said.

Schindler, of the Justice Policy Institute, said the question of how officials are responding to the homicide increases points to the issue of how advocates can prepare for a high-profile case or crime wave that challenges reforms.

Advocates should be ready to highlight what works well and why, he said.

“When there is a bad case, which inevitably there will be, we don’t want the backlash. We want a balanced narrative,” he said.

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