I’ve argued that notions demeaning the “teenage brain,” “adolescent risk,” and “crime-prone youth” are just simplistic adult prejudices with no scientific basis that hamper understanding of the root conditions and individual situations that drive challenges affecting youth. However, youths do deserve singular considerations in the justice system.
In Miller v Alabama, which limited life without parole sentences for crimes committed before age 18, the U.S. Supreme Court cited three crucial points that remain largely ignored:
First, youths have only limited “control over their own environment” and “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.” Second, juvenile courts deny youthful defendants important rights and procedures accorded adult defendants. Third, life without parole is an “especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” who will serve “more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.”
Essentially, a society whose legal system denies youths full adult rights cannot subject youths to full adult punishments — let alone punish youth more than adults for equivalent offenses. In addition to redressing age iniquities in the correctional system, trends in youth contact with the justice system also merit attention.
Transformation called for
In California, juvenile arrests have plunged from a peak of 408,000 in 1974 to 277,000 in 1997 to 56,000 in 2017 — all while the state’s teen population grew by one million and became more diverse. In notorious Los Angeles, teenage homicide arrests fell from 407 in 1990 to 26 in 2017. So much for the once-feared “superpredator” wave.
The plummet in youth crime has necessitated transformation of California’s juvenile justice system. Statewide, eight of 11 state-run facilities have closed, and the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) budget fell by 70% as the number of youth confined at DJJ plunged from 10,000 in 1996 to 700 today. Further, just 3% of the DJJ population today are female, compared to 15% in 1965, which debunks the “new violent girl” panic spread by Harvard School of Public Health and Cornell University academics.
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At the local level, reformers are considering the transfer of youth in juvenile halls to alternative community-based programs. In particular, San Francisco’s proposed closure of juvenile hall sets it on the path to model juvenile justice reform for other counties and states. These innovative conversations sparked a San Francisco Chronicle investigation, which exposed the exploding per-youth costs of California’s local juvenile facilities as populations plummeted from 10,600 in 1996 to 3,700 today.
Unfortunately, the system is fighting back with more trials and incarceration. Court dispositions per juvenile arrest have risen 58% and incarcerations per juvenile arrest rose 72% over the last decade even though crimes have not become more serious.
With California teenagers age 12-19 now less likely to get arrested than adults age 50-59, maybe it’s time to shut down the juvenile justice experiment as we know it, beginning with its costly, abuse-prone, non-rehabilitative youth correctional institutions.
Yet, there’s a new problem. While youth crimes have not become more serious overall, the drastically reduced numbers of youth who get deep into the system now represent a more troubled fraction. Nine in 10 youths sent to California’s state facilities have been convicted of serious violent crimes. These youth, whose troubles are exacerbated by severely disadvantaged and isolating conditions, must be prioritized in advocacy efforts to support youth within the community.
The plummet in youth crime coupled with justifiable, humane reforms to keep lesser-offending youth out of detention have largely eliminated their moderating influences from juvenile facilities. The 2019 challenge is how to re-engage the small, diminishing fraction of youth left out of their generation’s trends toward plunging crime and higher educational attainment.
Given the 80 to 90% decline in juvenile crime rates over the last 40 years, it is absurd to keep labeling adolescents “crime prone.” Rather, paraphrasing the Court’s Miller findings, the critical issue now is to address the powerlessness and disconnection of youth who remain in the system.
There are several alternatives; two are offered here. One major means of reconnection is a serious commitment to job training and education. For example, bolstering the California Conservation Corps by using dozens of mostly empty juvenile and fire camps to house, employ and train qualifying justice-involved youth and adults in environmental restoration, maintenance and preservation would provide stable employment opportunities and help California manage the intensifying floods, fires and droughts accompanying climate change.
Another promising strategy is civic engagement. The campaign led by Initiate Justice to restore voting rights to incarcerated and paroled populations in California is one example of how we can improve connections to society and decrease recidivism for justice-involved individuals. Combined with efforts to extend California’s voting age to 16, the campaign could encompass youth as well.
Juvenile justice advocates need to catch up to the massive reductions in crime and changing needs of those who remain in the system by prioritizing connections within our communities.
Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”