Analysis: The Numbers Behind the Dramatic Drop in Youth Incarceration

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Anyone concerned about the incarceration of young people in the nation will find both good news and bad news in “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” a new KIDS COUNT data snapshot from the Annie E Casey Foundation.

The best news is that the youth incarceration rate in the nation dropped 37 percent from 1995 to 2010. In 1995, 107,637 young people were held in correctional facilities on a single reference day, while in 2010, this number had dropped to 70,792, the lowest in 35 years. The rate of youth in confinement dropped from 381 per 100,000 to 225 per 100,000 over the same period.

Also good news is the fact that the youth incarceration rate fell in the District of Columbia and 44 of 50 states, and also fell in all of the five largest racial groups (non-Hispanic White, African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian/Pacific Islander).

However, the United States still incarcerates a higher percentage of its young people than any other industrialized country — in 2002 the nation’s youth incarceration rate was almost five times that of South Africa, the nation with the next highest rate. Most of the young people incarcerated do not pose a clear public safety threat: almost 40 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent reasons such as status offenses, public order offenses, low-level property offenses, drug possession, or technical probation violations, while only about one quarter are incarcerated for a Violent Crime Index offense (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, sexual assault).

Despite the overall drop in incarceration rates among all major racial and ethnic groups studied, there remains a wide variation in the incarceration rate between these groups. In 2010, African Americans had the highest youth incarceration rate at 605 per 100,000, followed by American Indians (367 per 100,000), Hispanics (229 per 100,000), Non-Hispanic Whites (127 per 100,000) and Asian and Pacific Islanders (47 per 100,000).

As shown in the graph, in 2010 there was also wide disparity in the incarceration rate across states, from a high of 575 per 100,000 in South Dakota to a low of 53 per 100,000 in Vermont. In addition, six states saw an increase in their incarceration rate from 1997 to 2010: Idaho (80 percent increase), West Virginia (60 percent increase) Arkansas (20 percent increase), South Dakota (8 percent increase), Nebraska (8 percent increase) and Pennsylvania (7 percent increase).

A 2011 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, enumerates many of the reasons why incarceration of large numbers of young people for nonviolent offenses is poor public policy. Among the reasons cited in this report: incarcerating young people places them at risk for violence and abuse, does not reduce recidivism but is associated with lower levels of future education and employment, and wastes resources that could more usefully be spent on other types of interventions that have been demonstrated to produce better outcomes.

Data cited in “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” was drawn primarily from the ‘Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement,’ a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

This survey counts the number of people under the age of 21 who were confined in a residential placement facility on the census reference date for that year (Feb. 24 in 2010) because of an offense.

Chart: “Youth residing in juvenile detention and correctional facilities – Data Across States – KIDS COUNT Data Center”

Title: Statewide Variation in Youth Incarceration in 2010 (rate per 100,000)

Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center (homepage) (specific chart)

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