Changing the Narrative of Youth Crime 

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By Kaya-Nadine Edmondson-Deigh, CJJ Intern 

Youth crime has been on a steady decline since the 1990s. However, the media and press tend to often portray a harmfully, different narrative. By discussing the current trends presented in the Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: 2022 National Report, we aim to shift the conversation around youth crime. It is to be noted that the data presented in the Youth and the Juvenile Justice report reflect data from 2019, as the onset of COVID-19 resulted in substantial delays in data collections in the years after. 


Youth arrest rates  

According to the Youth and the Juvenile Justice System: 2022 National Report, In 2019, there were 696,620 arrests of young people under the age of 18, most of which were for non-violent offenses (NCJJ, 2022). However, the narrative in the media is often one that focuses on  the very small percentage of arrests that are for violent offenses rather than highlighting the major drops in arrest rates among youth overall. There are some disparities in regards to the gender or racial background of the youth. The data shows: 

The arrest rate for property crimes has been the lowest it's ever been since 1980

burglary : 92% below its peak in 1980; 

larceny/theft : declined by 73% since 2008; 

Motor vehicle theft : declined by 16% since 2013; and 

Arson : declined by 63% since 2011. 

Arrests for youth in possession of a weapon have declined by 65% since 2006.

Arrests for drug use/possession soared between 1991 to 1997, however in 2019 they declined by 64%.

By highlighting the small percentage of arrest rates for violent offenses, the media does not take into account the youth that are victims of violent crime. 1 in 5 victims of a serious violent crime are under the age of 18 (NCJJ, 2022). By looking at the The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, we know that 9% of the people murdered between 2018 and 2019 were under the age of 18. 58% were victims of sexual assault and 13% were victims of aggravated assault. However, you do not see the media highlighting or even bringing the slightest bit of attention to those numbers. 


The juvenile court system 

In 2019, the juvenile courts handled 722,600 delinquency cases, which is a major drop for the 1.2 million cases that were handled in 1985 (NCJJ, 2022). Although the violent offense cases capture most of the media attention, this narrative is not supported by the current data. 39% of the cases were for personal offenses, 27% property offenses, and 26% public order offenses. Yes, it is important to bring awareness to the violent offenses, but it is also very important to understand that a vast majority of the youth that come into contact with the youth justice system are for petty crimes and misdemeanor offenses. In addition the data also shows that there are racial and ethnic disparities among who comes into contact with the juvenile court system. 

Compared to white youth, Black and Hispanic youth are 3.5 times more likely to be detained for a property offense. Hispanic youth are more likely to be detained for person and public order offenses, while Black youth are more likely to be detained for drug offenses (NCJJ, 2022). Despite the fact that Black youth only make up 15% of the youth population, they make up 35% of the youth delinquency caseload. Regardless of the many efforts made, these trends have not changed much. Subsequently, those narratives, that are not supported by the data and evidence-based practices, will disproportionately harm youth of color.


Youth correctional facilities 

In 2019, almost 40,000 youth were placed in correctional facilities (NCJJ, 2022). Of those placements, 39% were locally-operated facilities, 35% state-operated, and 26% private owned. A vast majority of the youth held in these placements were placed in medium-sized facilities, which held anywhere from 21 to 100 residents. In correlation to what was previously stated, most of the youth held in residential placements were youth of color. For every 100,000 Black youth in the United States, 315 were in a residential placement. Over 40% of the youth that are placed in a residential placement are there for committing a nonviolent person offense. The research shows that involvement in the youth justice system results in more negative outcomes than positive, especially for youth who are deemed as low-risk/ committed lower level misdemeanor offenses. Being involved in the youth correctional system at such a young age increases the likelihood of recidivism, while decreasing the likelihood of completing school. 

Many of the young people who get involved with the youth correctional system also show signs of poor mental health. Most of the correctional facilities claim to evaluate the youth for mental health needs. In 2018, 92% of the correctional facilities reported screening youth for risk of suicide on the first day of their placement. In the year prior, there were 8 deaths reported, 6 of which were suicides. 


Youth suicide rates 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people (NCJJ, 2022). Death by suicide has been greater than death by homicide, for youth ages 10 to 17, since 2009. By 2019, the number of suicide victims was greater than the number of homicide victims by over 80%.  Not only is the number of suicide victims on the rise, but the methods in which these young people are choosing to commit suicide are also changing. Previously, most youth suicides involved the use of a firearm. However, in the recent years, suicide by suffocation has become a lot more prevalent.

On average, about 10% of all high school students have reported that they have attempted to commit suicide at least once, while 19% reported that they had seriously considered it. Whether these young people are experiencing victimization while at school or struggling with mental health concerns, it is imperative that as society we work together to identify the underlying causes. 

In President Biden’s most recent State of the Union Address, he shed light on the growing youth mental health crisis, and also discussed juvenile justice reform. The President proposed increased funding for mental health professionals and programs within schools. With the creation of 350 new funded training slots and new award incentives, we are hopeful to see an increase in the number of school-based health professionals. This initiative also included educating young people and their families about the dangers of social media and making mental health programs and services more accessible. However, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done, especially when addressing youth crime. 

Law enforcement agencies, community officials, families, and young people, need to come together in efforts to identify the best practices to address youth crime and behavioral needs. The main goal should be diverting as many young people as possible from any involvement with the juvenile justice system, while still employing restorative justice practices to help repair our communities.