Truth About How to Reduce Juvenile Crime Is Not Political

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Judge Steven TeskeWhen personal politics are more important than the truth, immoral judgments will prevail. When immoral judgments prevail, people are harmed.

But when these people are children, the immoral becomes unconscionable. Legislators who have abandoned their independent judgment pass laws that harm kids. Just because it's law doesn't make it morally right. Segregation and Jim Crow laws have shown us this truth.

Public servants responsible for making laws and interpreting them, our legislators and judges, are prone to “rational lies” when there is an existing bent of mind on a particular subject. For some that disposition, if not the truth, will never be straightened out, regardless of how much truth is flung at them.

When this occurs, we abandon our own independent judgment to chase judgments that tend to promote our own self-interests, whether political, social, religious, economic or whatever.

Among some of these public servants are those who have convinced themselves that their rational lies are the truth.

And when this occurs, the odds of reversing this disease I call “rationalitis” is almost nonexistent. There is no medicine for this disease.

The reasons Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, gives for being the sole dissenter holding up the passage of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act reauthorization is a perfect example of rationalitis.

Cotton displayed strong symptoms of this disease during remarks he made on crime and justice at a recent gathering at the Hudson Institute.

He posits that the biggest reason for the dramatic decline in crime is the expansion of incarceration. That was triggered by the fear of a wave of superpredator kids in the mid-‘90s predicted by John Dilulio, a professor of political science.

Dilulio is credited with coining the phrase “superpredator,” who he described as a teenager who “is so impulsive, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.”

The problem was not in the description, it was in the prediction.

Relying on the dramatic increases in violent youth crime, Dilulio predicted a wave of violence by these superpredators. This prediction created such hysteria that lawmakers responded with harsher penalties for kids, including automatic transfer laws to adult court, reducing the age of criminal liability, zero tolerance policies in schools and increasing incarceration of juveniles.

But his prediction never panned out. In fact, at the time he made the statements, the juvenile crime rate was already making a nosedive decline.

But here is where we separate the rational liars from the truth seekers.

Dilulio would go public and admit his mistake. An act attributable to persons with integrity.

But Dilulio did more than just admit his mistake. He had to come to grips with the fact that his mistake led to harsher laws that are still in effect today and are harmful.

To his dismay, the superpredator myth stuck.

Knowing this harsh reality, Dilulio has dedicated himself to remediating this harsh reality, which for me is a demonstration of a moral character that is the antithesis of “rationalitis.”

He has pursued many things to remediate his mistake: One is his joining the amici curiae brief filed in Miller v. Alabama in support of striking down laws that allow juveniles to receive mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole, a by-product of Dilulio’s superpredator prediction.

Their arguments prevailed, and to the disappointment of Cotton in light of his remarks.

In contrast, Cotton credits these harsher laws as the most significant reason for the decline in the superpredator threat because these laws caused their removal from the streets. He asserts that because the superpredator concept “is much maligned by pro-leniency activists” that it will lead to a deconstruction of prisons that will bring back the return of the superpredator.

Notice his choice of words. They are politically strategic, intended to draw on the emotions as opposed to the intellect. He characterizes people who dismantle the harsh effects created by the myth as "pro-leniency activists."

Come on, who wants to be labeled a “pro-leniency activist”?

This is the beauty of Cotton’s strategy — to create a red herring to divert the conversation from the objective empirical evidence of what works to subjective political ideology to inflame passions.

What works to reduce crime is not a political conversation, it is a crime and justice conversation that is grounded in hard evidence that people of all political persuasions can agree on. In fact, many conservatives within his own political party have embraced what works to reduce crime. This may explain why he is the sole dissenter on the legislation to renew the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act.

So let’s look at Cotton’s version of the truth.

[Related: NCJJ Report Shows Juvenile Crime Keeps Falling, But Reasons Elusive]

He claims that the reason for the decline in violent juvenile crime in the mid-’90s is the result of the harsher laws, but what he doesn’t tell us is that the crime rates had already started to decline before any of these laws were passed.

Cotton also credits former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for implementing a “broken windows” approach to clean up New York City. No doubt that Giuliani deserves some credit, but not all of it. What Cotton doesn’t tell us is that crime in New York began to fall under Mayor David Dinkins well before Giuliani’s term. Dinkins hired 8,000 police officers to do “community policing,” a softer and lenient-looking style of policing. The murder rate fell 30 percent before Giuliani took office, a fact dismissed by Cotton. What Dinkins started, Giuliani continued, but this fact doesn’t serve Cotton’s interests.

He also wants us to believe that “we may be living on the edge of a new crime wave,” pointing to recent spikes in crime among several cities and placing blame at the feet of the “pro-leniency advocates” for their work to dismantle the harsh laws of the ‘90s.

He may be right, he may be wrong. It’s hard to say because many researchers have found that the rise and fall of crime does not rest on any single factor. They say the influences on crime rates are very complex.

Let’s assume that we are facing a spike in crime. Connecting this to the dismantling of these harsh laws flies in the face of hard evidence and assumes, contrary to research, that the causality of crime is easily predictable.

After all, Dilulio himself fell victim to this notion of single-dimensional prediction of crime, which Cotton should take to heart. This is especially because all the factors that Cotton cites as crime reducers were implemented well after the crime rate took a plunge, the single most weighted flaw in his argument.

For example, the ‘90s saw an expansion in our economy and there is plenty of research that ties poverty and unemployment to crime.

I will admit that the connection between crime and recessions is not that simple because there have been recessions that yielded no increase in crime. That contradicts Cotton’s position that the expansion of incarceration explains why crime continued to decrease during our most recent dramatic recession — that criminals are behind bars. This policy of incarceration was nonexistent in past recessions and had no impact. In fact, the recession of the ‘80s yielded a decrease in crime well before the passage of harsher laws.

What the studies reveal is that crime cannot be analyzed from an economic perspective looking at the global data. The causes of criminality during economic crisis is dependent upon local situations, policing and social service strategies such as community policing and the expansion of innovative social programs that create a buffer for youth in at-risk areas of the community.

This may explain why Cotton can point to some cities that show a spike in crime, but not most. In fact, many communities as big as New York and as small as my own have continued to witness record-breaking drops in crime.

Notwithstanding Cotton’s chronological miscalculation of which came first, the harsh laws vs. the downward trend in crime, the second most damning evidence against his position is the research pointed out in the amici brief cited above: The absence of superpredators is not due to an incarceration effect nor to a deterrent effect, as Cotton contends.

The many distinguished researchers who wrote this amici highlight that between 1997 and 2007, Texas significantly increased its incarcerated juvenile population while California decreased its incarcerated population, “yet the rates of juvenile crime in both states were remarkably similar.” Contrast this to the dramatic changes made by Texas in 2007 that cut its incarcerated juvenile population by half, but after nearly a decade the state’s “overall crime rate nor the number of juvenile arrests has since increased.”

I have been on the bench for 17 years. In 2003 we initiated reforms in the midst of a nightmarish crime wave and embarrassingly low graduation rate of 58 percent that has yielded a decrease in detention rates by 86 percent, out-of-home placements by 76 percent, school arrests by 91 percent and yet our juvenile crime filings fell 71 percent.

As goes kids, so goes adults, which explains, in part, why my county has a crime rate at the 1987 level.

So what does this have to say about Cotton’s remarks that we have an “underincarceration” problem?

Our country already leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens. Either Cotton is an overachiever or just doesn’t understand the costs and benefits of targeting the far fewer dangerous ones for incarceration and redirecting the cost savings to community-based programs and other solutions proven to reduce recidivism among the nonviolent.

I think he is an overachiever. You see, it’s not as simple as Cotton wants his listeners to believe.

But I am not offering this to convince Cotton. He is not a John Dilulio, and I think it’s time we stop trying to convince him and his staffers.

I am offering this for all the policymakers who desire factual integrity in order to make an informed decision, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.

Crime and justice is not about personal politics. It’s about what works regardless of how it looks, tastes, smells and feels.

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.

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Report: Certainty, Not Severity, Key in Deterring Juvenile Crime

Ending Zero Tolerance Actually Slashes Crime in New York Schools

2 thoughts on “Truth About How to Reduce Juvenile Crime Is Not Political

    • Thank you Judge! I enjoyed seeing your folks again recently at the School Pathways meeting in Atlanta. You continue to do great work!