The latest comprehensive survey of the U.S. juvenile justice system paints a mixed picture of troubled youth even as the numbers of teens in the system continued a long decline.
Juvenile arrests for violent crime have dropped to a 30-year low, and fewer teens are being locked up than at any time in nearly 20 years, the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) found in its latest periodic national report on offenders and victims. The number of killings committed by youth under 18 is at the lowest point in at least three decades, the authors write.
“Rather than in years when the story was “Oh my God, look at how high the numbers are,’ now it’s the reverse — ‘Oh my Lord, look at how far they’ve dropped,’” center director Melissa Sickmund said. The decline in arrests “has rippled through the system,” meaning fewer youths end up in residential placement — “particularly the types of residential placement that are the sort of upper, deep end, more like prison kind of places.”
The 244-page report includes data on arrests, commitment and detention up to 2010. It’s the first such report since 2006 by the NCJJ, the research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Of a juvenile population of more than 74 million, 1.6 million were arrested in 2010, down 21 percent from 2001 to 2010. About 1.4 million of those cases went to court.
One reason for the decline may be that there’s more attention being paid to child welfare before a boy or girl ends up in the system compared to previous decades, Sickmund said. And the increased cost of juvenile detention has led states to consider alternatives to traditional punishment, she said.
Jeffrey Butts, who leads the Research and Evaluation Center at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the figures reflect a long-running decline in juvenile crime since a peak in the mid-1990s, but doesn’t address the reasons behind that fall.
“It appeals to policymakers and elected officials to think that states are getting better due to their own efforts, but crime is coming down everywhere,” said Butts, himself a former NCJJ analyst. “The real question is not who’s responsible and why did this happen, but if it does not continue to come down, what do we do in terms of policy and practice?”
Sickmund said perhaps the question researchers should ask isn’t why arrests and delinquency fell, “but why was there that blip where it went up in the first place?”
“I think it’s returning to a normal state and something weird went on between the mid-’80s to 2000-something,” she said.
Though the data is now more than 4 years old, the report provides a broad, comprehensive snapshot of juvenile justice — particularly when looking at the numbers of children who have been victimized, said Amanda Petteruti, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.
“The way that they really did a deep dive on who is experiencing crime and who is a victim, that’s important work,” Petteruti said. “Our community is thinking more and more about the intersection between young people who are victimized and young people who come in contact with the juvenile justice system.”
About 4 percent of children are abused or neglected, the report found; nearly half had been exposed to some sort of bullying or assault in the past year, and 10 percent suffered injuries as a result, the study found.
About a quarter of the nation’s known victims of serious violent crime are children, mostly girls, the center found — about the same as in the previous report, in 2006.
And despite the decline in arrest rates seen in the report, wide disparities in the percentages of African-American and Latino teens in the system remain when compared to whites.
The number of youth transferred to adult courts and prisons remains higher than in the early 1990s, before a spike in crime prompted many states to make it easier for teens to be tried as adults.
And the number of girls arrested has reached a two-decade high. Females were 28 percent of delinquency cases in 2010, a 69 percent increase since 1985. But that may have more to do with changes in police policies and courtroom practice: Until recently, a male defendant was more likely to get committed to custody than a female, Butts said.
“Especially if the judge is a little older, they would tend to think, ‘We’ve got to send this young lady home,’” Butts said. “I think that inbred sort of deference to gender is decreasing, and so that explains some of the shift.”
And Sickmund said schools and police respond more aggressively to misbehavior among girls than in previous decades. Girls who once might have received detention for a fight now face the possibility of arrest, she said.
“The whole tolerance for misbehavior has changed,” she said.