Reform Matters: A Reply to Jeffrey Butts

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In a column posted on JJIE on March 7 and a data brief posted a few days earlier, Jeffrey Butts has provided an important caution to the juvenile justice reform community. Thrilled as we may be with the drop in youth incarceration over the past few years, we should not assume that it is the product of reform. As Jeff warned, “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.”

After issuing this timely warning, however, Jeff takes this argument a step further, positing that lower juvenile confinement rates are largely a function of falling juvenile arrests. “Incarceration numbers follow the crime rate,” he asserts – inviting readers to infer that incarceration rates would have declined irrespective of policy, practice and programmatic reforms that have taken root in many states and localities around the country. We think that idea is not just wrong, but also dangerous, because it risks the very complacency Jeff warns us against.

Tom Woods

The national data he cites do show that since the mid-1990s, both juvenile arrest rates and youth incarceration rates have been on the decline, and have fallen at a similar pace for much of that period. But this pattern has been the exception, not the rule: in the decades prior to 1997, youth incarceration rose more rapidly than juvenile arrests and, in fact, made its most rapid ascent in the 1980s during a period of relatively low and stable juvenile crime. Researchers have long recognized that incarceration rates, in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, are at least as much a function of the system’s behavior as they are of young people’s behavior.  We shouldn’t neglect this insight based on the experience of the past few years, when the experience of the previous 30 years so strongly confirms it.

Moreover, the national numbers mask stark and important differences at the state and local levels. Maltreatment scandals, facility closures and budget crises have been a factor in many places. But there is no denying that policy, practice and programmatic reforms can and sometimes do make a crucial difference in reducing incarceration, by greater amounts than can be explained simply by decreasing juvenile crime:

  1. California – In 1996, the state adopted a sliding scale funding formula requiring counties to share the cost of lower-risk youth committed into state custody. By 2006, the incarceration rate had declined 75 percent, while serious arrests fell 51 percent.
  2. Texas –  Despite a steady decline in juvenile crime, facility populations at Texas Youth Commission rose 48 percent from 1995 to 2006. Then a maltreatment scandal spurred legislation limiting commitments to state custody for non-felony offenders and providing new funding for community alternatives. Following these policy changes, state facility populations have fallen more than 70 percent in just four years.
  3. Ohio - Juvenile confinement rates have fallen 77 percent in Ohio since 1992, and the sharpest declines coincided with two significant reforms: the enactment in 1994 of RECLAIM Ohio, which reduced financial incentives for counties to commit youth to state custody; and the introduction of Targeted RECLAIM in 2009 to fund more evidence-based treatment for court-involved youth in the state’s six largest counties.
  4. Connecticut - Annual commitments have fallen 70 percent since 2000 (even after the state expanded the jurisdiction of juvenile courts through an historic “Raise the Age” law), thanks to an ambitious multi-pronged reform agenda detailed in a Justice Policy Institute report last month.
  5. Alabama – Commitments to the Department of Youth Services (DYS) steadily increased through the 1990s, despite declines in juvenile crime. Then in 2006 the state banned the commitment of status offenders, introduced a new grant program to help localities reduce commitments, and launched ambitious detention reform efforts in four large counties. Since then, DYS admissions are down 56 percent.
  6. The latest data on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative show that sites have reduced detention admissions by 13 percent more, and commitments to state custody by 36 percent more, than would have been the case if admissions had simply tracked juvenile crime.
Nate Balis

It is difficult to imagine that these jurisdictions would have reduced incarceration as much as they did in the absence of reforms like these. Their experiences illustrate how reforms can change the way systems behave, and in so doing can yield safe, responsible and sustainable reductions in youth incarceration that falling crime rates alone cannot.

Like Jeff, we believe the past two decades of declining youth crime present us with a rare, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally re-orient our juvenile justice systems. If we are to prevent a pendulum swing back to punitive juvenile justice the next time youth crime rates spike upward, it will require a new policy consensus coupled with targeted, well-crafted reforms – not just in a limited number of pioneering jurisdictions, but throughout the nation.

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