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Plummeting Youth Crime Demands New Solutions, Thinking

In 1990, in California’s 15 largest cities, 373 youths (in a population ages 10 to 17 of 850,000) were arrested for homicide. In 2015, in those same cities (now with 1.1 million youth), 21 youths were arrested for homicide — a rate decline of 94 percent.

Over the last 25 years, gun killings of teenagers in California’s urban centers fell nearly 80 percent; in New York City, they declined by 90 percent.

Such impossible decreases look like typos, but they’re real. They are repeated in city after city and state after state, where growing, racially diversifying youth populations accompany astonishing reductions in crime and other serious problems.

The millennial generation, forecast to bring “adolescent superpredators,” instead brought a stunning anti-crime revolution that challenges long-held assumptions.

From 1990 to 2016, juvenile arrest rates declined by 73 percent nationally, including large declines in all reporting states. Arrests for violent offenses plunged by two-thirds. Homicide arrests of youth decreased from nearly 4,000 per year in the early 1990s to under 900 in 2016. Twenty of the 35 reporting states – including California, Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan – saw youth homicide arrests plunge 75 percent or more.

In California, a harbinger of national trends, the justice system is rapidly disappearing from young lives. As the youth population grew by one million from 1980 to 2016 and became increasingly diverse, juvenile arrests plummeted from 286,000 to 63,000. All offenses — felony, misdemeanor and status — have fallen to all-time lows. California’s state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, has seen its budget cut 70 percent since 1995 as youth incarceration dropped 93 percent and eight of 11 state detention facilities closed. In juvenile halls and camps, more than 7,000 beds lie empty.

No one knows why these hugely encouraging trends are happening. Instead, we’re seeing more recycled "teenage brain” and “adolescent risk" nonsense of the type that has proven devastatingly wrong and perpetrated destructive policies. Like a Greek play with predetermined lines marching to inevitable tragedy, we let outmoded agendas and prejudices stifle honest debate again and again.


Figure 1. Declining rates of criminal arrests of youth (under age 18) by state, 2016 v 1996 (includes all violent, property, drug, sex, other felonies and misdemeanors, and status offenses).

Source:  FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1995, 2016.  Notes: This figure includes the 35 states with reports to UCR for both 1996 and 2016. Arrest totals are adjusted by the proportion of jurisdictions reporting to UCR by state and year. U.S. Bureau of the Census data for populations ages 10-17 are used to calculate rates.


Even though 21 percent of teens live in poverty compared to 11 percent of middle-agers, more Californians age 40-49 (186,000 in 2015) and 50-59 (128,000) are now getting arrested for felonies and misdemeanors than those under age 20 (123,000 in 2015; 105,000 in 2016). Adolescents can no longer be called “crime-prone.” Crime rates among 18- to 19-year-olds resemble those of 35-year-olds; age 15-17 is like 50.

It’s a whole new world. How are authorities responding to the youth crime revolution’s exciting new opportunities? The prevailing view pretends the decadeslong plummet in crime by youth isn’t happening; that crime, guns and violence remain youthful stupidities. Reading major reports and commentaries these days is like retreating 20, 50, even 100 years into the past.

As teenage crime falls to historic lows, backwards-looking interests are reviving 19th-century myths that “teenage brains are neurologically wired" and “biologically driven" to crime and risk as some "new science." Malarkey. Real scientific reviews show that the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) underlying “brain science” cannot be reliably interpreted or replicated, invalidating thousands of studies.

The premature embrace of poorly grounded psychological and biological notions has the potential to harmfully expand youth and young adult detention by justifying investment in new and “better” lock-ups. For example, California hired a private firm (Campbell Consulting) to rehash developmental clichés and recommend yet another set of “therapeutic” prisons while ignoring young people’s massive crime drop.

Demeaning all 60 million youth and young adults as brain-miswired criminals in order to win lenient treatment for the dwindling few who commit serious crimes isn’t reform — it’s demagoguery. Self-flatteries that “adolescents are not like adults,” while great fun at conference workshops, dodge the uncomfortable reality that crime by youth is a function of adult-imposed poverty, abuse and its trauma sequelae, and troubled caretakers, not being young.

The few commentators who admit real-life trends typically credit their local initiative or pet solution. However, we now see there was no unique Minneapolis gun-violence reduction or “Boston Miracle.” (Nor can my group take credit for the unheralded “San Francisco miracle:” juvenile murders down 80 percent from 1992 to 1999, including 15 months with zero under-16 gun killings). Crime and shootings among youth fell substantially everywhere regardless of what locals did.

The behavior of young people themselves brought down crime and boosted education achievement dramatically. How else do we explain huge drops in youth crime, violence, murder and gun killings in Idaho and Connecticut, West Virginia and Washington, Oklahoma and California, New Jersey and Utah — states with widely varying conditions and policies? We elders did little to relieve unconscionable youth poverty, student debt and addiction and crime epidemics afflicting their parents. Grabbing credit for improvements sabotages reasoned evaluation.

This isn’t “superpredator” 1995, “broken-windows” 1982 or “biological-determinism” 1895. Is the adult brain capable of comprehending changed realities, or is it doomed to lag decades behind, indulging cosmetic system-tinkerings and pleasing orthodoxies to preserve archaic institutions?

Of course we can change. Biological determinism doesn’t dictate thinking, young or old. We need the dynamic, modern discourse 2017’s young people deserve.

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.”

Leader of Civil Rights March Shaped By Exposure to Segregation, Racial Bias

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — When she was in the sixth grade, when she still wanted to be a pediatrician and not a lawyer for revolutionaries, Soffiyah Elijah entered her first integrated school in Hempstead, Long Island. She remembers that in response to integration the administration of the school then segregated the classrooms. So she spent her first day in an integrated school among all black students.

That didn’t last long.

That afternoon after school was dismissed she went home and told her parents.

“My mother marched up to the school the next day,” Elijah recollected. “And she moved her little girl over to the other class. It was like either my daughter will be in this other class or you’ll wish she was. My mother was a no-nonsense mom.”

When asked if she feels some of her mother’s sense of justice helped shaped the woman she has become, she bursts out into laughter.

“I think a lot of her rubbed off on me,” she said. “And my dad was a no-nonsense dad.”

Elijah was looking to explain what inspired her to organize and lead the March for Justice. In order to do that, she reached back to her childhood. She needed to explain the ubiquitous system of segregation that touched her life starting as a toddler.

Major events of her childhood

It wasn’t just her professional life as a lawyer or her work leading the Correctional Association of New York, but a lifetime of exposure to rampant segregation that shaped the 62-year-old to organize a 21st-century civil rights march in the state often considered one of the most progressive in the union. That’s a misconception she hopes to dispel by the time she reaches Albany, New York, at the end of her 180-mile March for Justice.

“The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Cointelpro program, the brutality of the civil rights workers that they went through,” Elijah said, listing the historical forces that shaped her youth. “That’s a lot, right, to shape someone’s formative years. I watched the political assassination of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I grew up when black people were never depicted on television in a positive light. So, it’s rooted in my DNA.”

By the time Elijah had reached sixth grade she had already become inured to the ubiquitous racism that defined her neighborhood. She grew up on the border of Hempstead and Garden City. Garden City was all white back then, but Hempstead was segregated between black and white residents. Her house was near the border of Garden City. So she and her black playmates grew up knowing a lesson that wasn’t taught at any school.

“So I knew,” she said “As black kids growing up there we all knew. ‘Do not ride your bicycle past this block.’”

As a black child in Long Island, segregation was as much a part of her life as someone in the deep South. Elijah grew up hearing her parents tell the story of moving day. Her neighbors were white. Someone had painted “Go Home NIGGER” on the picket fence.

“Now I was too young to see that or to understand it because I was only 2, but my parents, as I got older I would hear them talking about that,” she said. “So, I didn’t have to wait until I got to the sixth grade.”

When her parents took her on trips to Delaware to visit her godmother or farther south into Maryland to visit relatives, Elijah became accustomed to a routine: Her parents would always pack food and a portable toilet. She learned on those trips that because she and her parents were black that they couldn’t use any public accommodations.

“That was just the norm,” she said flatly. “You packed your food; you packed your port-a-potty, and that’s how you traveled. And so I learned that well before I got to sixth grade. The idea of stopping at a rest stop on the road to D.C. to go in and use the bathroom and buy something to eat — I didn’t learn that until I was an adult.”

First step to fix justice system

As the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, Elijah now works with many families with loved ones behind bars. But in 2001 she had her own close call. Elijah’s son was arrested by the Boston Transit Police for a graffiti charge. She attended the court hearing in Boston, but did not reveal she was a criminal defense lawyer who had once taught at Harvard. Her son’s defense lawyer came up to Elijah and told her to relax.

“‘Mom, you don’t have to worry, we’re going to get him six months probation,’” Elijah remembers her saying. “I said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’ve got yourself the wrong little black boy.’ And I gave her my card. And I said, ‘Now you fix it or I will.’”

The head of the gang violence unit of the Boston police came into court and swore out an affidavit that she witnessed him doing graffiti at a train station, Elijah said. The headmaster and the dean of her son’s private school went to court and swore out an affidavit that he was in school.

“I’m sure the only reason he didn’t go on the adult track is because he had a criminal defense lawyer as a mother,” she said. “It was like, ‘You are not going to screw up my son.’ If it weren’t for that, I’m sure his life would have been very different.”

She said there is no fixing the criminal justice system without first repairing a broken juvenile justice system.

“I don’t think you can fix mass incarceration unless you address the juvenile justice system,” Elijah said. “And you can’t address the juvenile justice system without addressing the education system. They are feeder systems.”

She had just taken a quick cat nap on a beat-up sofa in the lobby of one of the many churches that offered her marchers shelter. She was on the eve of reaching the halfway point between the beginning of the march in Harlem to the terminus in Albany.

She remained steadfast in her belief that this civil rights movement for the 21st century she is trying to jumpstart is essential in influencing a generation of young people to make as big a difference as the activists of the 1960s did to transform the country.

“This is part of how we can touch the next generation. This why I am doing this,” she said. “Lord knows, I could be doing something else at 62 years old besides going down the block in some strange neighborhood with a megaphone, OK? But it’s like a moving classroom. It’s like an interactive moving classroom for young people. And that’s really important. There’s no university they can go to on this planet where they can go to that can teach them this.”

Check out previous New York March coverage


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Public Health, Juvenile Justice System Reformers Are on Common Ground

It’s not every day that people working on health collaborate closely with people who think about how to reform the juvenile justice system. I was recently part of a research project that did just that.

I’m a public health researcher. Recently, my organization, Human Impact Partners, researched and wrote a report looking at how youth arrest can have a lifelong harmful impact for a person. Our report, Reducing Youth Arrests Keeps Kids Healthy and Successful, found that having a youth arrest would:

  • Increase anxiety, stress and other mental health issues
  • Increase the risk of injury and premature mortality
  • Increase labeling as “delinquent,” stigmatization and risk of further rearrest due to labeling
  • Lower opportunity due to higher rates of dropout and unemployment — all of which have well-established ties to long-term health.

We worked with public health departments (Washtenaw County Public Health and the Detroit Health Department), the Michigan Public Health Institute, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and faith-based community organizers MOSES.

At the same time, one of our collaborating partners, the Michigan Council, had done primary research into youth diversion practices across the entire state of Michigan. Their study, Restoring Kids, Restoring Communities, found that diversion practices varied widely due to varying resources, capacity and philosophies in counties — and less than 1 in 5 actually evaluate their programs. They found that 90 percent of youth diversion program services begin only after a youth has already been arrested due in part to a financial incentive for post-arrest diversion — counties are reimbursed by the state for youth services only after a petition has been filed with the court.

For both our organizations, some of the main recommendations were to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior, train professionals to de-escalate problem behavior before an arrest is necessary and to divert youth away from the juvenile system pre-arrest. This would lead to better health and opportunity outcomes for youth, as well as less involvement in the juvenile system.

As a researcher new to the juvenile justice world, I was surprised about how many policies, programs and interventions exist that would decrease the harmful effects of arrest. Several promising practices we highlighted were:

  • Civil citations programs for youth: Instead of arresting youth for misbehaviors, law enforcement officials can issue a citation to divert them from the juvenile justice system, holding them accountable for their actions while offering supports such as early intervention, counseling, education and other programming. A study of a statewide civil citations program in Florida show that youth in pre-arrest diversion programs are 2.5 times less likely to reoffend. And the program is so cost-effective that they are exploring making civil citations mandatory for several juvenile offenses. In one year, a civil citations program in Florida saved the state at least $13 million.
  • Training police who come into contact with youth about youth development, such as StopWatch, which trained subway police officers and decreased youth arrests from 680 in 2001 to 84 in 2009.
  • Expunging prior arrests from people’s records. A Stanford University study found that average change in yearly income after expungement was almost $6,200, and a Michigan State University paper about expungement for youth found higher rates of college attendance and future earnings.
  • And other restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches.

Several diversion programs that the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency highlighted in their report include:

  • The Ingham Teen Court. Youth charged with first-time misdemeanors as well as local students facing suspension/expulsion can have their cases heard before a jury of their peers, rather than face formal court involvement.
  • Wayne County Right TRAC program and prevention services. Wayne County has attracted nationwide attention for their Juvenile Assessment Center, which uses an evidence-based assessment tool to create treatment plans for youth both post-arrest (Right TRAC) but also simply when they are referred for behavioral issues.
  • Washtenaw County Sky Squad. A student-led restorative justice practice where student volunteers lead restorative circles with students in conflict who are at risk of suspension or expulsion and work collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Several of our partners are now moving forward in Detroit and Washtenaw County to try to implement some of the recommendations from the reports.

The funny thing is that while our worlds — juvenile justice system and public health — are worlds away, our philosophies were very similar. Let’s decrease the reach of law enforcement in the lives of children and support them with opportunities to live a fulfilling, successful and healthy life.

Kim Gilhuly leads Human Impact Partners’ Health Instead of Punishment program, which uses public health research, advocacy and capacity building to reform the criminal justice system. She is also responsible for convening alliances of public health and criminal justice stakeholders to advocate for a public health approach to our criminal justice problems.

Young Bostonians Pleased With Counter-protester Turnout Against ‘Free Speech’ Rally

BOSTON — With her 2-year-old son perched on her shoulders, Tomiqua Williams, 30, carefully guided her 5-year-old daughter’s wheelchair to the edge of the sidewalk, making sure she had a good view as thousands of marchers carrying signs denouncing hate and promoting tolerance poured through her Lower Roxbury neighborhood.

New York Bureau“I live down the street and it’s very monumental to see all the people who’s coming out to counter-protest what’s going to happen at the Boston Common today,” Williams said. She wants her children to know how important it is to stand up against hatred and racism.

“I want them to see and enjoy this moment,” she added.

Bayou Cugma, 9, who lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, said he would normally spend the last few days of summer playing soccer or basketball but that he was happy to give up an afternoon of play to help stop hate.

“It makes me feel strong and I hope it makes people stop all the madness,” said Cugma, referring to recent police killings of black men and other acts of racial hatred. He starts fourth grade in a few weeks.

Nine-year-old Bayou Cugma relishes a moment in the sun at a march against white supremacy and hate in Boston on Aug. 19, 2017.

Officials estimate more than 40,000 counter-protesters descended on the Boston Common Saturday to denounce white supremacy and hate speech and to oppose a protest described by organizers as a “free speech” rally. Counter-protesters, as well as city officials, were alarmed by possible connections between organizers of the “free speech” rally and a demonstration held last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying torches and rifles spread messages of hate. One woman was killed, two state troopers in a helicopter died in a crash and numerous others were injured during the protest.

Organizers of the Boston rally denied being affiliated with the Charlottesville protestors, but counter-protester organizers and marchers were not convinced.

"If this was really about free speech, we would have been invited from day one to speak and have a platform," said Angelina Camacho, who is the Black Lives Matter co-organizer for the Boston area, at a Friday morning press conference.

“People are using freedom of speech for the gathering on the Common but we all know what is behind it and we’re against it,” said Boston resident Nancy Huang, 22, who was marching with friends from Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Boston resident Nancy Huang (on right of three people in red), 22, marches from the Reggie Lewis Center to the Boston Common on Aug. 19, 2017.

Most counter-protesters rallied at the Reggie Lewis Center in the city’s historically black, but rapidly gentrifying, Roxbury neighborhood, then marched through Lower Roxbury and the South End on their way to the Boston Common.

Many said the march gave them an outlet to express their opposition to white supremacy and the political atmosphere that surrounds President Donald Trump, who is under fire for not immediately denouncing events in Charlottesville.

“I don’t think we should be staying silent while something this wrong is happening,” said Jocelyn Antonio, 27, as she marched with a group of young people down Tremont Street toward the Boston Common.

“It’s not like white supremacy hasn’t been happening all along,” Antonio said. “But when it’s so overt and in your face, you have to do something about it and if you don’t you’re just encouraging people and letting them know that it’s OK — and it’s not.”

The Boston organizers may have gotten that message.

Only about three dozen showed up, and the event ended after only about an hour. Those in attendance were escorted out by police shortly before the main group of counter-protesters reached the Common.

Counter-protesters put their hands up as they clash with police, who appear to be protecting “free speech” rally-goers on Aug. 19, 2017.

Initially, small groups of counter-protesters and police clashed when officers appeared to protect the small group of "free speech" rally-goers and counter-protesters were pushed back by a line of police in riot gear. Later in the afternoon, large crowds pushed their way across Tremont Street toward the city's downtown area as a small number of Trump supporters confronted counter-protesters.

But in spite of the clashes, the event was overwhelmingly peaceful. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh thanked counter-protesters at a late afternoon press conference.

“I want to thank all the people that came out to share ... that message of love, not hate, to fight back on racism, to fight back on anti-Semitism, to fight back on the white supremacists that are coming to our city — on the Nazis that were coming to our city,” he said.

Although 33 people were arrested when scuffles broke out between small groups of counter-protesters and the police, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans also praised attendees.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people here were here for the right reason, and that is to fight bigotry and hate,” said Evans at the press conference.

As the last of the marchers passed her corner, Willams prepared to walk the few blocks back to her apartment. She said she was inspired by the overwhelming number of counter-protesters, but wonders if her kids will still be marching against racism and white supremacy when they have their own children.

“I hope that we don’t have to continue to keep marching,” she said. “We keep having to demonstrate for the same reasons that our grandparents did and we have to show we’re tired of this and move forward.”


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Boston Teens Learn Modern Etiquette for Facebook Romance

Boston teens got a lesson in the do’s and don’ts of Facebook romance late last month during a one-day conference on “healthy break-ups.” According to The New York Times Magazine, the seminar, sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission, attempted to answer such pressing questions as: how fast is too fast to change your relationship status? And when is it OK to delete pictures of your ex?

Behaviors were classified as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” During one session, a 17-year-old boy was told he should “take a technology timeout” the next time he felt the urge to rush home and change his relationship status after a break-up. Teens were encouraged not to initiate break-ups through text messages or on Facebook. In order to drive the point home, one adult facilitator wore a pin reading, “Face It, Don’t Facebook It.”

Conference organizer Nicole Daly told The Times magazine breakups are the part of relationships adults never discuss with teens. “We’re here to change that,” she said.