Number of Kids Behind Bars Reaches 35-Year Low

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There were fewer kids behind bars in 2010 than there have been in 35 years, demonstrating what one foundation called a “sea change” in American attitudes toward juvenile justice, according to a trio of new reports out today based on U.S. Census data.

Although the United States still locks up young people at a far higher rate any other industrialized nation, that number has been steadily falling over the past decade and reached its lowest point in 35 years in 2010, the most recent year data is available, according to “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” a KIDS COUNT data snapshot released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Most of these changes have taken place idiosyncratically in individual states and counties, but collectively, in the aggregate, they represent an extraordinary trend that we haven’t seen in the U.S.,” said Bart Lubow, who directs the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program for high-risk youth and who has worked in criminal justice for nearly 40 years. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen it.”

More and more jurisdictions are taking on innovative approaches to reducing juvenile delinquency and relying less on punitive responses to juvenile crime, resulting in cost savings for the public and providing hope for better outcomes for youth, the Foundation’s report said.

The KIDS COUNT report came out in conjunction with a pair of reports by the Justice Policy Institute, which detailed youth incarceration declines in specific states and outlined the lessons learned from reforms in those states’ juvenile justice systems.

Reducing the confinement of young people is usually couched in terms of reducing government costs, but it’s probably just one factor in the shift that is taking place socially and politically across the country, Lubow said in an interview with the JJIE.

“I’m old enough and have been in the business long enough to have very little confidence at all that fiscal constraints in and of themselves change America’s appetite for incarceration,” Lubow said. “The history of recession over the course of my career has simply been that policy makers found creative ways to fund corrections.”

That national hunger for punitive measures appears to be waning. The District of Columbia and 44 states showed declines of an average of 37 percent in their incarcerated youth populations between 1997 and 2010, according to the Casey Foundation.

Five states — Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota and Tennessee — all reported declines of more than 50 percent in the number of young people incarcerated between 2001 and 2010, according to the Justice Policy Institute’s report “Common Ground: Lessons learned from five states that have dramatically reduced juvenile confinement.”

“These states have taken advantage of circumstances, both good and bad, to reshape their juvenile systems away from the over-use of confinement and towards recognition that young people are different from adults; the reasons that put them in contact with the justice system are different and the way we respond to their behavior should be different,” said Spike Bradford, a senior research associate at the Justice Policy Institute and the author of the report.

But the data in these reports lags dramatically behind the reality, even though it may be the best information available right now, Lubow pointed out. The number of young people incarcerated in the United States is likely even lower today than the 2010 data shows, he said.

For example, at least one of the six states shown by the Census data to have increased its confined youth population contacted the Casey Foundation to say their state’s data in the report did not look right and had actually decreased over the last 10 years, Lubow said. He didn’t know enough about the matter to comment on why the data may be inaccurate, he said.

Although incarceration rates declined across all ethnic and racial groups, the racial and ethnic disproportionalities in the incarcerated population remained. Young African Americans were five times more likely to be incarcerated than young people who were white, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

“The decreases are largely reflected across all racial and ethnic categories, but because we start with a system that has extreme disproportionality, an equal reduction across all ethnicities leads us to the same level of disproportionality,” Lubow said.

There is “a relatively fragile policy consensus” in place around the country right now, Lubow said.

If juvenile justice professionals don’t do an effective job of documenting what they did to push down youth incarceration rates, and demonstrate why placing fewer kids in confinement is better for communities, a sudden spike in violent crime could turn public opinion back toward punitive policies and reverse these downward trends, Lubow warned.

“The issue now is, are we going to effectively document what’s been done, what worked, and dispel once and for all the myth that the number of people we lock up is a proxy for how safe we are,” he said.

“I think the worst danger is failing to effectively document and study these changes, so that people who need to know are effectively convinced that this the right policy and practice and direction to head, rather than reverting back to what we did for so many decades.”

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