Juvenile Justice in the 21 st Century: Sifting Through the Trends (Blog 1/3: Overview)

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By Igor Geyn

The U.S. incarcerates its residents at an infamously high rate – 666 adults were locked up for every 100,000 individuals in 2015. In raw terms, that comes to more than 2 million people, putting our nation’s prisoners at 130% of the world’s second-highest incarcerated population (China) and over 300% of the third-highest population (Brazil).

Many of the issues associated with such high rates of incarceration are also prominent in the juvenile justice system - an unsurprising trend given the frequency with which young boys and girls are punished through the adult penal system. Despite its appeal to some tough-minded criminal justice professionals, the notion of ‘scaring kids straight’ has done real harm. While achieving little in terms of deterring crime, statutes and policies stemming from this ideology (e.g., life imprisonment and the death penalty for youth) have resulted in boys and girls being exposed to the violence, de facto ‘criminal education,’ and reinforcement of problematic behavior that occurs much more prevalently in adult justice facilities.

To repair the damage caused by these ongoing policies, lawmakers at the state and federal levels must dedicate resources to the improvement of conditions for youth involved in the system, fund innovative alternatives to detention, and commit to implementing the lessons learned by juvenile justice researchers and practitioners. They will only do so if citizens continue to apply pressure and make their priorities clear through informed, targeted, and decisive civic action.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a major crackdown reshaped juvenile justice. Many states, including traditionally tough-on-crime parts of the South as well as liberal states like California and New York, passed harsh laws that encouraged stiffer policing, arrests, and detention. These policies drastically increased the number of boys and girls who came into the system, and led to a sharp spike in the number of youth arrested, tried, and incarcerated in both youth and adult facilities. The result was staggering: nearly 105,000 boys and girls were in residential placement by 1997.

Beginning in the 1990s, the youth crime rate declined nationally and the public realized the skyrocketing costs of maintaining an ever-expanding prison population. As a result, lawmakers started to question the social and financial value of a detention-oriented, punitive youth justice system, and several reforms were subsequently introduced. Mississippi sharply cut the number of youth kept in state facilities following a series of damning investigations, Louisiana prioritized placing youth in minimally restrictive facilities, and several other states raised the age of criminal responsibility. These reforms reflected a desire to draw greater distinction between the handling of youth and adults – a desire partly driven by the growing acceptance of cognitive development research. With declining rates of youth offenses, revised arrest procedures, greater restraint on judges’ leeway in sentencing determination, and effective downsizing of some of the most horrendous detention facilities, states were eventually able to undo the explosion of youth confinement that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Between 1997 and 2015, the total population of boys and girls in detention centers, long-term secure facilities, and other residential placement facilities was more than halved, dropping by nearly 60,000 individuals. Still, the de-institutionalization of young people in the United States is an ongoing struggle. Youth are still detained for non-violent and even non-criminal offenses. Thousands of individuals are held many miles away from home and family, and the conditions in both youth-specific and adult-youth hybrid facilities continue to worsen. Coupled with the looming budget shortfalls outlined in an earlier CJJ blog, the current state of juvenile justice is precarious.

To better contextualize the changes that have taken place in the juvenile justice system, and to accurately depict the conditions youth face today, I examined data compiled by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) between 1997 and 2015.

Over the 18 years for which data are available, a few periods stand out. The largest drop in total incarcerated youth population takes place between 2007 and 2010 – over the three years, there was an average annual decline of approximately 5,300 individuals. Another sharp decline occurred between 2010 and 2011, where there was a decrease of more than 9,000 youth, or nearly 13% over a one-year period. At a typical annual rate of $100,000 per youth incarcerated in a prison setting, the annual drop in total involved youth between 2010 and 2015 – 4,400 individuals – would yield national savings of more than $1.2 million for each day those youth are kept out of detention.

This drop in youth incarceration is a welcome development. Still, the decline in federal funding has largely outpaced shrinkage of the incarcerated youth population, forcing facilities and communities to do more with less. In practice, juvenile justice budget cuts usually lead to the elimination of programs with a direct impact on recidivism reduction

Additionally, not all juvenile justice facilities are identical in terms of the services, conditions, and overall quality of care they offer. The experience of an individual in an alternative, community-based program near the youth’s home can be quite different from that of someone in a long-term secure facility or adult prison, which are often located hundreds of miles away from the individual’s friends, family, and key social networks. A report by the Justice Policy Institute elaborates on this subject, urging lawmakers to “invest more in alternatives to incarceration, diversion, and primary prevention” – in other words, to enhance spending in the entirety of the justice system rather than simply pouring money into facilities with the highest level of security. Unfortunately, it is not clear that these guiding principles are being followed.

In 2015, nearly two-thirds (63%) of youth in residential placements were held in detention centers or long-term secure (LTS) facilities. When combined with the share of youth in residential treatment centers, a staggering 86% of youth were held in facilities with the highest levels of security in the juvenile justice system that year.

Juvenile justice experts have sounded the alarm about widespread youth detention for years. In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute highlighted some of the biggest issues: approximately 70% of detained youth are held for nonviolent offenses, and “detained youth are housed in overcrowded, understaffed facilities – an environment that conspires to breed neglect and violence.” In a similar vein, the researchers behind the Child Trends Databank have shown the connection between the detention of youth in juvenile and adult centers and negative outcomes such as re-offense, recidivism, violence, and sexual assault. The lack of a policy response to these findings is confusing and frustrating.

According to a 2017 National Conference of State Legislatures report, “the youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs." Additionally, smaller, "homelike" facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation are necessary for youth who require secure confinement. The underlying reasons behind slow and occasionally nonexistent implementation is the result of a lack of political will: governments continue to invest in higher-security facilities out of inertia and fear of public backlash. The $35 million youth detention facility opened in Maryland last year is an example of such a response.

Youth incarceration is declining, and important reforms have taken place over the past several decades. These reforms have introduced a number of alternative programs with direct, positive impacts on the experiences of youth in the justice system. Still, more must be done – with nearly two-thirds of the youth who are in residential placement being held in detention centers or long-term secure centers, failure to take necessary action is a condemnation of the lives of thousands of young boys and girls.