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.
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.”
This story was written for The Marshall Project.
A nationwide shift toward abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles, which began to take shape in 2016 after former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal prisons, has surged ahead in recent months, with a half-dozen states either prohibiting or strictly limiting its use in their youth facilities.
In just the past year, a series of strongly worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated “punitive” solitary — holding youth in isolation for long periods of time rather than briefly for safety purposes — from the juvenile justice system. It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states, according to a July 2016 survey of policies in all states and the District of Columbia.
The developments suggest that long-term isolation is rapidly losing ground as an accepted practice within the juvenile corrections profession, and that a child-specific definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is now being established by courts across the country.
“These diverse courts seem to all at once be coming to the same conclusion: that solitary confinement of kids, who are our most vulnerable citizens, is unconstitutional,” said Amy Fettig, an expert on the issue for the ACLU.
But for youth advocates, ending juvenile solitary will take more work. Twenty-three percent of juvenile facilities nationally use some form of isolation, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The practice still has support from many, though not all, juvenile corrections administrators and officers, who are often underpaid, overworked and exhausted from double shifts and who believe solitary is the only disciplinary tool available to them without adequate mental health resources or alternative discipline options.
“The front-line staff, historically, they’ve been trained to use isolation as a means to control violent behavior and to keep themselves safe, and now we tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to do things,’” said Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. “So there is pushback, resistance, fear — a fear that changes like these will basically create unsafe conditions.”
But the momentum for juvenile solitary reform continues, with the latest development coming in July in Wisconsin, where a federal judge ruled that children at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prison complex — one of the largest juvenile facilities in the nation and long the subject of litigation — have an age-specific “right to rehabilitation” and that “solitary confinement violates it.”
Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.
A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said that while the agency has moved to implement these changes, “The merits of the case have not been decided.”
The injunction echoes one in March by another federal judge, in Tennessee, who blocked a county from placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And in February, a third federal judge, in yet another preliminary injunction, ordered a Syracuse, N.Y., jail to immediately stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary, citing the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The rulings also come in the wake of — and perhaps as a result of — two events involving juvenile solitary that drew national attention. The first was the death of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old from the Bronx who, after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 — a charge he denied — was held at the Rikers Island jail for three years, about two of which he spent in solitary. In 2015, after finally having his case dismissed and gaining his release, he hanged himself in his own home.
It was an image that, for many, drove home the total and long-term damage that isolation can do to young people, a group that depends more than most on social contact, educational stimulus, and a sense of purpose. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary, according to the Justice Department.
Soon after, in January 2016, Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and also wrote an op-ed article citing Browder’s case and calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” It was a largely symbolic move, given that only 26 juveniles were being held in the federal system at that time. But many advocates credit it as an act of policy leadership that has spurred the flurry of state and local reforms in the year since.
In the months following, both California and Colorado legislatively banned the use of punitive solitary in juvenile facilities for periods longer than four hours. (However, an ACLU report published this year notes that despite the new law, Colorado’s youth corrections department placed juveniles in solitary 2,240 times in 2016.) And both North Carolina and Connecticut in 2016 limited the solitary confinement of teenagers held in adult facilities, a different but related policy change. Since youth in adult prisons must by federal law be segregated from adult prisoners, they are often held in isolation for no reason other than to keep them separate.
Yet despite the recent spurt of reforms, according to a Juvenile Law Center report, states like Nebraska are still regularly holding youth in isolation. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill this year that would have restricted solitary for juveniles in adult prisons. She said it would have put guards in danger and hampered their flexibility to choose the best disciplinary options for the most violent inmates and also to keep youths fully separated from adults.
Even in the places where reform has been enacted, the work of translating a judge’s order or a new piece of legislation into actual, sustained culture change remains to be done, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center.
Indeed, many juvenile justice agencies, when challenged by litigation or legislation, simply rename solitary confinement using one of a variety of well-worn euphemisms: “room confinement,” “special management unit,” “restricted engagement,” “administrative detention,” “time out,” or even “reflection cottage.” Other agencies just reclassify the type of isolation as “nonpunitive” in their official statistics, calling it “temporary” or for the limited purpose of protecting the youth or those around him from harm.
“Anytime you’re talking about new or additional training,” said Dempsey, the executive director of the juvenile corrections administrators council, “it does cost money. It takes investment in alternative techniques, and that can be hard because in this line of work there’s always turnover and staff shortages.”
That’s why Dempsey’s organization and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which aims to end juvenile solitary within three years, provide on-the-ground technical assistance to state and local agencies that might otherwise be inclined toward superficial reform. Juvenile justice officials from Kansas, for instance, were brought to a successful facility in Massachusetts to observe alternatives to solitary for themselves, said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and a leader of the campaign.
To Fettig, the ACLU advocate, the cause could not be more urgent. “Imagine if you left a kid locked in a small room for 70 days. Well, that same action is taken by state governments all over this country!” she said. “When you do this to children, they do not come back.”
This story originally appeared in The Marshall Project.
On Saturday, Newtown, Conn. officials released the names of the 20 children and six adults slain in last Friday’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to initial reports, all of the children killed in the attack were between 6 or 7 years old.
State police say 12 of the young victims were female and eight were boys. All six of the slain adults were female.
H. Wayne Carver II, the state’s chief medical examiner, said it appears as if the victims were all killed using the same firearm. “All the wounds that I know of at this point were cause by the one weapon,” he told CNN.
At a news conference, Carver said while examining seven bodies, he observed that each victim had been shot anywhere from three to 11 times by the alleged gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
“I believe everyone was hit more than once,” he said.
Postmortem examinations of the children have been completed, he said, with most of the adult victims examined on Saturday evening. Examinations of the alleged gunman and his mother, Nancy -- found dead in her Newtown home and believed to be the first victim of her son’s rampage -- are scheduled to conclude before the end of the weekend.
Investigators have said Lanza attempted to purchase a firearm at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Newtown earlier in the week. The weapons Lanza allegedly used in the massacre were all legally purchased by and registered to Nancy Lanza, ABC News reports.
Several law enforcement officials said the alleged gunman was involved in an altercation at the school on Thursday.
Lieutenant J. Paul Vance, Connecticut police spokesman, said Lanza forced his way into the school on Friday morning, and that investigators had uncovered “some very good evidence” regarding possible motives for the attack, according to The New York Times.
Photo via CNN's livestream
As with most natural disasters, the attention of the media was initially centered on the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. We were drawn to its most dramatic images – the dangling crane at the construction site of a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan; the New York City building whose façade collapsed, resembling the open side of a dollhouse; the half-submerged roller coaster, all that remained of an amusement park on the Jersey shore; the river of water running through the narrow streets of Hoboken; and the weeping mother who lost two toddlers amidst the flooding on Staten Island.
We watched cable news. We texted REDCROSS to 90999. We donated canned goods and batteries.
Yet, consistent with human nature, our interest soon faded. As we resumed our regular activities, the media began another news cycle – focusing on the election results, the next nor’easter, a celebrity marriage or the latest grisly murder. It is unfortunate but inevitable.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans are left to pick up the pieces – just as they have after previous natural disasters, whether hurricanes, tornados, wildfires or earthquakes. They grieve for those who have died. They attempt to document the damage, file insurance claims and make repairs. They grapple with shock, depression and post-traumatic stress. They try to move on.
What is absent from the narrative, however, is the particularly severe impact that such disasters have on those who are already among our most vulnerable – the poor, infirm, elderly and mentally ill, many of whom fit into more than one of these categories.
New York City’s “Zone A” was the first to be evacuated in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy. It includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan and has 26 public housing developments and tens of thousands of residents. City officials turned off elevators, heat and hot water to these multi-story buildings on the Sunday evening before the storm, giving residents less than 24 hours to find a public shelter or another place to stay.
One 87 year-old woman, Margaret Maynard, was alone in her 16-story building for several days. Unable to reach family or friends by phone after the electricity went out, she wore layers of robes and wrapped a scarf around her head to keep warm. She said she’d been surviving on crackers and juice. Only after an NPR reporter shared a working cell phone was she able to arrange for someone to help her down the many flights of stairs and take her to her nephew’s home in Queens.
In the wake of Sandy, people remained in public housing units, doing their best to cope with the precarious conditions. Tall buildings without emergency lighting presented a particular challenge for the aged and disabled, who were unable to negotiate the dark hallways and stairwells. Phone lines were not operating or were continually disrupted. Toilets wouldn’t flush without water. Subway and bus lines were shut down and took many days to resume service.
In addition, thousands of low-income residents were unable to buy basic necessities – including groceries, paper goods and toiletries. Because power outages left vast swaths of the New York metropolitan area without electricity, many stores only accepted payment in cash. Yet those families and individuals who receive supplemental nutritional assistance (a.k.a. food stamps) do so electronically via debit cards, meaning that they lost the ability to make purchases.
It is undeniable that Hurricane Sandy has had a devastating impact on millions of people in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and beyond. It is counterproductive to try to calculate who suffered more, who lost more, or who needs the most help in the months to come.
Yet the extreme disparities in income that already exist in the United States are even more stark during times of disaster. Before Hurricane Sandy touched ground, most people of means could leave – whether by car, train or plane. In addressing its impact, they can turn to their insurance agents and lawyers. If they or their loved ones need physical or psychological treatment, they have private health insurance. If their homes are destroyed, they have options and choices – stay in a motel or with family and rebuild, or request a job transfer, relocate and make a fresh start. None of this is easy, but it is easier with resources.
The media will soon direct its attention elsewhere, but let’s not forget those among us for whom the effects of the storm will continue to reverberate. For the most vulnerable, Sandy not only took away everything, but they have no means to get it back.
Professor Birckhead’s commentary is also posted at the Huffington Post.
In Connecticut, you need a good reason to arrest a kid. That shouldn’t be any big surprise. But to advocates who’ve witnessed decades of increases in school-based arrests for things like dress code violations and running in the hallway, it’s huge.
Connecticut’s judicial branch is now rejecting delinquency summonses and status offender complaints unless “the facts, if true, would be sufficient to be a juvenile matter, and whether the interests of the public or the child require that further action be taken …” If Judicial’s Court Supportive Service Division [juvenile probation officers] rejects an arrest, the arresting officer and the youth’s parents will receive a letter informing them of services in the community that could more appropriately address the problem behavior.
The credit for this enlightened policy goes largely to Court Supportive Service Division Executive Director William Carbone, who has been a champion of good, evidence-based programming throughout his tenure. Carbone was shocked by the number of children who enter the juvenile justice system for things like possession of tobacco. (No kidding -- there was at least one school district in Connecticut that had kids arrested for that.)
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance has been shining a light on school-based arrests. We’re excited to be conducting forums around the state in cooperation with Connecticut Public Television to discuss CPTV’s original documentary, "Education vs. Incarceration the Real Cost of Failing Our Kids." We’re working with districts across Connecticut that are entering into agreements with their police departments to develop agreements about when arrest is – and isn’t – warranted in schools.
We’re seeing a growing recognition among policymakers like Bill Carbone and ordinary citizens that arrest should be an extraordinary event in a school – not a common disciplinary tool. We’ve made great strides. As always, however, there’s more work to be done. Teachers need better preparation in classroom management; administrators need support to transform their schools into places where a sense of community and mutual respect abounds; parents need opportunities to have meaningful involvement in their children’s education.
But we’re heartened by what we’ve seen already and delighted that the judicial branch has decided to let common sense play a role in how we enforce school discipline.
How does your state handle this issue? I'd love to hear any success stories -- please drop me an email or leave a comment below.
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.
An amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.
Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.
“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”
Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.
“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”
Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.
It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.
Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.
Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.
Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.
An era of prosecuting juveniles as adults may be coming to an end in numerous states as criminal justice officials face a growing recognition that many underage offenders have been mishandled in the adult system, details a story in Sunday’s New York Times.
While states from Connecticut to Wisconsin have started to roll back the generation’s old policies, many other states remain resistant to the change, citing the higher cost of adding more people to the juvenile systems at a time of crushing budget problems, says the paper.