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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.”

States Respond to Budget Shortfalls with Hodgepodge of Juvenile Justice Cuts

Around the nation, states continue to grapple with the reality of budget shortfalls with a hodgepodge of cuts to various programs, including juvenile justice.

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North Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is being forced to cut spending by 10 percent while eliminating roughly 275 positions, a 15 percent decrease in work force, under the new FY 2012 budget.

Also gone are 75 beds from the state’s seven youth development centers, raising concerns that serious offenders may end up back on the streets to make room for new juveniles entering the facilities.

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Alabama’s Department of Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention has a FY 2012 budget a little more than half that of FY 2011. The department saw a 74 percent drop in general state funding and significant cuts from the federal-level.

“I don’t see the system being able to recover in my working lifetime,” said DCANP Director Kelly Parris-Barnes. “When you take the community level programs out you don’t have the capacity at the state level to do it.”

Not a direct service provider themselves, the DCANP allocates funds for community-based programs around the state. Of the 174 programs the department funded in FY 2011, just 101 are slated for FY 2012, according to Deputy Director Greg Smith.

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On the surface, Idaho’s Department of Juvenile Corrections has seen an increase in funding heading into FY 2011-2012. The budget has increased, said Chief Fiscal Officer Scott Johnson, but the department also absorbed the now defunct Office of Drug Policy.

“The impact is huge,” Johnson said. “All we got was the money. We didn’t get any additional personnel for managing a $4 million program. We’re basically having to design a substance abuse program from the ground up.”

Overall the department saw a $1.1 million decrease in its operating budget, but has largely been able to offset the shortfall due to cost-cutting measures and a decrease in state population.

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Maryland added $3.2 million to its Department of Juvenile Services for FY 2012, but the increase is expected to restore employee furlough days, according to a budget analysis outlined by Youth Today. The department still expects to see a reduction in evidence-based services.

Down 12 percent since FY 2011, Louisiana’s Department of Youth Services has seen more than a 20 percent decline in funding since FY 2008.

Texas has begun the closure of the Al Price State Juvenile Correctional Facility in an effort to bridge a $117 million shortfall over the next two years.

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States around the country have dealt with the decline in available funds for juvenile justice and other related programs in their own ways. This article is merely a snapshot of some of the realities on the ground.

Youth Today has started an open-ended compilation of state-by-state spending on juvenile justice, child welfare and youth to help make sense of all the numbers.

 

 

Andrew Peterman On Learning the Real Meaning of Being Tough in Juvenile Detention

At age 17, I was found guilty of three felonies and, in addition to this, tried as an adult in Idaho. Without having gone into the juvenile justice system I would be in prison or dead.

I spent time in a number of adult and juvenile facilities in the state. With experience in both adult corrections and juvenile corrections, I can tell you a few things that affected me throughout my incarceration.

To be honest, the adult side of corrections was much easier to handle in a number of different ways. In the Ada County Jail, in western Idaho, I was put in a single cell and was in the highest security part of the facility. My days were spent reading books, sleeping, watching TV, having one hour of exercise a day in a concrete courtyard and talking to other inmates, figuring out how to be a better criminal.

It came as a big shock when I was finally placed in the Juvenile Corrections Center, in St. Anthony, in eastern Idaho. I wasn’t allowed to sleep all day and my days were structured with school, chores, physical fitness and counseling. Instead of the jailers catching me for things that were against the rules my peers were the ones holding me accountable. At first, I resented my peers for this because in jail this was considered “snitching” and if you snitched you would be beaten up.

I soon came to see that the staff and my peers cared about me and wanted the best for me. I was provided mandated counseling to get to the bottom of my problems and was able to counsel others with the same issues I had as well as other issues I didn’t have, but that made me think of solutions and develop more empathy.

Some say that people should be locked up and that is being “tough on crime.” I can tell you that being locked in a room 23 hours a day -- where you can continue to develop your criminal mindset and your ego -- is not as “tough” as my journey was through the juvenile system. Sure the days go by slow being in a cell, but you don’t have to deal with your issues or even pretend to care about others.

Tell me, what is harder? Learning new ways to con people, dreaming about how you are going to be a better criminal and at the same time making new drug and criminal contacts, or being confronted every time you do something that shows you have an issue and being forced to acknowledge the problem.

Do you think it’s harder to mask your problems or to have to face them and break down your negative coping mechanisms and learn new, positive ones and be held accountable to use them?

I’ll give another example of what I think is “tough.”  I was in the juvenile corrections center with all types of offenders, even sex offenders. In jail their name was simply “Moe.” At St. Anthony I was expected to give all my peers at least a minimal level of respect. I’ll tell you right now that was “tough.” We held each other accountable for our attitudes towards others and anything the staff or other peers pointed out that could be linked to a behavioral issue.

One of my safeguards was to not get emotional around others because it made me look weak. With the close comradery of other peers the emotional fronts began to disappear and I got to know the person “behind the mask.”  This encouraged me to help them in groups and try to empathize and understand where they were coming from and search for a solution because I cared about them. Caring about people is hard. Before, I would just look out for myself. Now I was put into a situation where I was responsible not just for myself, but for the well-being, progress and outcome of others.

The hardest thing for me was to open up and trust these other “offenders” with my personal problems. I was expected to be honest in order to progress in the program. I had to totally drop my hard persona and deal with issues that had led me into the system.

Being locked in a cell … you think that’s tough? Try having to change your life, values and morals…now that is tough.

 

One Man’s Journey Through Crime, Drugs, Schizophrenia and Rehabilitation

When Andrew Peterman of Idaho first came into the juvenile justice system at age 15, he did not know that schizophrenia was driving his anger, which in turn was resulting in arrests and illicit drug and alcohol usage. In time, thanks to juvenile detention and treatment for his schizophrenia he has been able to straighten out his life.

In fact, he has come so far on his journey that the Coalition for Juvenile Justice awarded him the 2011 National CJJ Spirit of Youth Award to "recognize and celebrate a young adult...who has made great strides through involvement with the juvenile justice system, overcome personal obstacles and is today making significant contributions to society." In the video below by Leonard Witt, Peterman tells of his journey through crime, drugs, schizophrenia and rehabilitation. See the video time splits below.


 

  • Introduction, Spirit of Youth Award: 00:00
  • Trouble begins at age 15, no coping skills 00:50
  • At 17 tried as an adult 01:20
  • Three felonies, classified as "persistent violator" 01:50
  • Avoiding automatic five extra years of incarceration 02:23
  • Diagnosed with schizophrenia, treatment helped 02:35
  • Relapsed into drug and alcohol abuse, quit taking medication 02:50
  • Decides against evil methamphetamine world and turns to God 03:28
  • Used coping skills learned in juvenile detention 03:55
  • Now attends college, will finish in August 2011 04:06

Watch for Andrew Peterman's essay on how juvenile detention is more demanding than adult prison later in the week at JJIE.org.