Juvenile Justice Can Be Reformed Without Invoking Old Prejudices

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Erica Webster 2There is reason for concern about the increasingly extreme rhetoric deployed in the growing campaign by juvenile justice reform advocates to extend juvenile courts to defendants ages 18 to 20 or 18 to 24.

Reformers are rallying around an old doctrine that teenagers and young adults are neurologically predisposed to crime. Beyond misusing science, the latest rush to invoke “brain development” and “innate biology” notions (which carry troubling racial implications) jeopardizes the crucial goals of individualized justice and reducing economic inequality.

Some reformers demean teenagers and young adults as immutably dangerous, impulsive, biologically driven to criminality and incompetent, with mentalities akin to children — exactly the language authorities used a century ago to support “scientific” racism disparaging non-European races. Today’s resurrection of biodeterminism is an especially disturbing retreat into the past for states like California, where 80 percent of youthful arrestees for serious crimes, and 91 percent of those incarcerated, are youth of color.

Biodeterminist notions have always been rationalized as “new science,” though the consensus on the science remains thin. Many neurological researchers agree that brain research remains primitive, uninterpretable and too subjectively biased to link to behaviors such as crime. So subjective, an analysis in Scientific American reported, that young people with the most “adult-like” brains are the ones most inclined to crime.

Ironically, “teenage brain” notions are resurfacing at the very time actual crime by adolescents has plunged to such low levels that “adolescent risk” has effectively disappeared. California, the only major jurisdiction that has compiled race-by-age statistics over decades, reveals spectacular trends.

Over the last 40 years, criminal arrests of people under age 25 in California plummeted from 850,000 per year to 350,000 (even as the supposedly “crime-prone” population of ages 15 to 24 rose by two million). Dispositions by California’s juvenile justice system plunged from 285,000 in 1980 to 87,000 in 2014. Juvenile detentions dropped by 60 percent, prompting the closure of eight of the 11 state juvenile facilities and numerous local camps and halls.

[Related: Convicted on Drug Charges, Georgia Youth Faces Life After Rehab]

Meanwhile, arrests of Californians age 40 and older rose from 220,000 per year to more than 360,000. That more middle-agers than young people are now getting arrested challenges everything we thought we knew about crime. It is time to use, not ignore, emerging realities.

External economic and poverty-related disadvantage drives the persistence of high levels of arrest among teenagers and young adults in high-poverty areas, not internal brain biology. Impoverished African Americans ages 15 to 24 living in Richmond, California, suffer gun murder rates some 300 times higher than affluent white 15- to 24-year-olds in Marin County only a few miles away.

In fact, age factors disappear once poverty is controlled. Where middle-agers suffer the same high poverty rates typical among young people, middle-agers (“mature” brains notwithstanding) display very high crime rates and even more risk. Where teenagers and young adults enjoy the same low poverty rates typical among middle-agers, young people (“undeveloped” brains notwithstanding) have low rates of crime and risk.

The remarkable reality is not how differently, but how much alike teenagers, young adults and older adults act in similar circumstances. Reformers who depict crime simply as another “stupid” youthful behavior perpetuate America’s deplorable tradition of blaming social crises on whatever powerless outgroup is the designated scapegoat of the day.

Still, the failure of interest groups and authorities to catch up with modern trends does not negate criticism of punitive justice systems. The goal of handling certain adult defendants in more informal, rehabilitative settings epitomized by the juvenile system, as seen in the examples of Connecticut and the transitional-aged youth movement, carries potential benefits.

The dramatic population drop in the juvenile justice system presents an opportunity to extend its rehabilitative potential to certain adults, targeting those whose offenses stem from drug abuse, poverty, trauma and violence exposure, and mental illness, and who show a commitment to rehabilitation. However, poverty, trauma and individualized criteria, not mass, biodeterminist disparagements of young people, should be the basis of justice alternatives.

Negative campaigns postulating young people’s criminality and “differentness” may be easier to sell to courts, politicians and reporters but have repeatedly produced bad policy. The impetus for positive reform is too important to waste on anything less than full incorporation of the best modern research, statistics and science.

Erica Webster is the communications and policy analyst  at the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

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