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.”

Is Bully Movie Being Bullied with “R” Rating?

Bully, the movie, hits theatres March 30, 2012“Bully,” a documentary movie that follows five kids who are brutalized by classmates over the course of the year, is set to hit theatres by the end of the month, but not as many teens may be seeing the movie as the producers had hoped.

When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) stamped the movie with an “R” rating back in February, a number of people raised concerns that it may not reach many in the demographic the film aimed to impact -- those under 17 and still dealing with aspects of bullying in their daily lives.

What do you think of when you hear about bullying?

Hitting, slapping, harassment, name-calling and profanity are but a few of the adjectives that come to mind. All are present in the movie -- and why wouldn’t they be? This is a documentary, after all, and kids can be rather brutal and vulgar at times.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the violence or harassment the MPAA objected to when coming up with the adult rating. It wasn’t the suicide of a boy following a torrent of bullying from students. Instead, it was the profanity –- specifically the use of the “f-bomb” – producer Harvey Weinstein told CBS.

For their part, “Bully” producers have been pushing a petition with the hopes of changing the MPAA’s stance and landing a PG-13 rating ahead of the film’s debut. Weinstein even went as far as to threaten "a leave of absence from the MPAA for the foreseeable future" for The Weinstein Company, distributor of the flick, if the rating wasn't changed.

The official website for the movie contains a link to sign the petition under the caption “Don’t let the MPAA bullies win!” and a stamp that “this movie is not yet rated.” So far, the efforts have garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

“Unfortunately, there is a misconception about the R rating of this film limiting the audience to adults,” Chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration at MPAA Joan Graves said in a release. She went on to compare the "Bully" rating to films such as Schindler’s List that have been used for educational purposes and shown to minors despite the R-rated status. “The R rating and description of ‘some language’ for Bully does not mean that children cannot see the film.”

“As with any movie,” Graves continued, “parents will decide if they want their children to see Bully.”

Parents will have to decide for themselves if the movie is appropriate for their kinds, but an R rating certainly does make it harder for teens to gain access to the film in theatres – even with their parents consent.

A number of theatre chains require parents to attend R-rated films with those under 17, not just buy tickets. Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Theatres, the two larger movie chains in the country, both enforce this rule. Even if a parent buys a ticket for their kid(s), many theatres check IDs once inside for anyone appearing underage.

“No one who is 13 wants to go see a movie with their mom or dad,” Katy Butler, the 17-year-old that launched the online petition to change the rating, told CBS.

If 16-year-old Kelby from Tuttle, Okla. -- one of the teens chronicled in the documentary -– wanted to see the movie at the closest theatre in nearby Yukon, a parent or guardian would have to be present throughout the screening.

Censoring teens from the realities of their own lives may seem a bit… unusual or pointless. The teen may not be exposed to the content in the theatres, but the next day on a bus back to school is a different story.

“Over 13 million American youths will be bullied over the course of this year alone, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in our nation,” representative Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said in a letter to colleagues. “I believe an R-rating excludes the very audience for whom this film is most important, and ask you to join us in calling upon the MPAA to reconsider their rating and allow access to those who need to see this film most -– today’s youth and our future leaders.”

The movie puts an emphasis on raising awareness among teenage social groups under the tag of “STOP BULLYING. SPEAK UP!” The filmmakers have teamed with Creative Visions Foundation, a non-profit, to raise funds for the cause.

Still, it’s unlikely the MPAA will change the rating. The film already went through the appeals process and the rating stood. There is no process for a second appeal, according to the MPAA.

Bully, the movie, hits theatres March 30, 2012.

An Advocacy Group’s Successful Approach of Strengthening Child Services Nationwide

Kelsey Smith-Briggs
Kelsey Smith-Briggs, 2, suffered a host of injuries before dying from a blow to her stomach while in the care of her mother and stepfather. She had been receiving regular visits from Oklahoma child welfare workers. Kelsey became a sort of "poster child" for Children's Rights' work in Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of

More than four-years after Children’s Rights, a New York-based non-profit, filed a law suit on behalf of nine children in Oklahoma, a settlement has been reached that will bring changes to the state’s child welfare system.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell approved the settlement reached between Children’s Rights and Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services in January.

“There just has not been the funding to hit some of these critical needs,” Sheree Powell, communications coordinator for the state’s Department of Human Services, said. “We don’t control the purse strings, but it was understood in federal court that we’ll make good-faith efforts to improve everything within our control.”

Under the agreement, “specific strategies to improve the child welfare system” as it relates to 15 performance areas will be outlined, detailed and put into practice over the next four years.

“We’re confident the settlement will result in better services and protection than foster children [in Oklahoma] currently receive,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Founder and Executive Director of Children’s Rights.

The Oklahoma effort is not the first time the New York-based group has spearheaded such an effort. In fact, since 1995, Children’s Rights has launched legal challenges in at least 15 states around the country, seeking improvements in child welfare systems – all but two of which have proven successful.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, Executive Director at Children's Rights
Marcia Robinson Lowry, Executive Director at Children's Rights. Photo courtesy of Children's Rights.

The advocacy group currently has 11 active cases in different states. Legal battles are ongoing in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Texas. Eight other states and Washington D.C. are in the process of implementing reform plans developed by the group and approved by federal courts.

Oklahoma is the first of these states to reach a settlement without a federal decree, meaning progress will be tracked by independent monitors and not by federal officials.

Yet, this is one of the most far-reaching settlements Children’s Rights has ever entered into, Lowry said. While not federal officials, monitors retain the authority to file complaints in federal court if the DHS fails to make good-faith efforts in instituting improvements

“In many settlement agreements there are specific things required,” Lowry said, adding that there is no limit to what the monitors can require the state to include in the plan. “This settlement gives monitors very broad authority over what they can require the agency to do to comply with the order and that authority can by enforced by the federal court.”

Implementing systematic change and comprehensive reform plans is no easy task. The path is often long and complicated, stretching over a period of years, with a number of systems experiencing setbacks along the way – Georgia included.


After more than seven years, Georgia still struggles to meet federal benchmarks.

The finalization of Oklahoma’s settlement comes on the heels of Metro Atlanta’s completion of foster care legal representation requirements stemming from a 2005 lawsuit between Children’s Rights and Georgia state officials. However, work to improve Metro Atlanta’s child welfare sy stem – stemming from a separate suit brought on by Children’s Rights in 2002 – is ongoing.

“When we brought the legal challenge to Georgia in 2002 it was one of the most dangerous foster care systems we had ever seen,” said Ira Lustbader, Associate Director with Children’s Rights. “There was no reasonable oversight for these kids and the outcomes were just horrible.”

Two of the three legal challenges Children’s Rights filed between 2002 and 2005 looked specifically at legal representation for foster youth in Fulton and DeKalb counties (Metro Atlanta), and a federal monitor was assigned to each county following a right-to-counsel settlement in 2006.

Having shown dramatic improvements in legal representation for foster youth, DeKalb County was released from federal oversight in 2008.

During the same period, Fulton County managed to reduce caseloads for juvenile attorneys and established an independent Child Advocate Attorney’s Office, but fell short of meeting the required benchmarks until late 2011. Fulton was released from federal oversight in December of that same year, with the backing of Children’s Rights, after making and maintaining numerous improvements.

The third suit, filed against state officials but still focused on the child welfare system in Metro Atlanta, sought comprehensive reforms in 31 different areas and is still under the oversight of federal monitors.

In some areas the progress has been very good, but there are still substantial improvements needed in other areas,” Lustbader said. “For example, kids are still not getting required medical, dental and mental health check-ups.”

While the state has made strides in delivering these services to children in foster care, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has not been able to provide them at a level that meets the 2005 settlement agreement.

A recent joint investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and Channel 2 Action News discovered an increase in child deaths that had been in contact with DFCS within the last five years. Thirty-five children with such history died in a 10-week period between Dec. 1, 2011 and Feb. 12, 2012, roughly 40 percent of the annual average.

Four of the deaths were instances of abuse, and 10 due to medical problems, DFCS told the AJC. Investigating instances of abuse or neglect and the timely delivery of medical check ups for foster youth are areas of the settlement DFCS continues to struggle to meet, according to the latest monitoring report.

Ravae Graham, Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs and Communications for Georgia's Department of Human Services, said the DHS "will not speculate" about the deaths.


A number of factors effect reforms

Budgetary constraints, staff turnover and an influx in children entering the foster care system can place added burdens on systematic reform.

Oklahoma’s recently retired head of DHS served in his post for 14 years, yet Georgia and other states have seen a considerably high rate of turn over among top brass. Clyde Reese, Georgia’s current Commissioner of the DHS, has held the post for less than 18 months.

Shortly after Children’s Rights brought legal challenges to Georgia in 2002, both the GADHS Commissioner and the Director of DFCS, the state agency charged with investigating child abuse and neglect, resigned following deaths of children in the foster care system.

“We’ve found Commissioner Reese very willing to discuss the agencies progress and remaining challenges,” Lustbader said. “ He has held himself accountable for implementing these reforms.”

Also in Georgia, specifically Metro Atlanta, there has been an influx of children entering the foster care system, roughly a 55 percent increase in the first six months of 2011 compared with the pervious six-month period, according to the latest monitoring report.

Some advocates worry the increased workload could potentially overwhelm caseworkers, hampering their ability to make decisions in the best interest of the children they serve. According to the most recent monitoring report, however, caseloads throughout Georgia continue to be universally low.


Back in Oklahoma, the work has just begun.

The state’s Department of Human Services (OKDHS) – working in conjunction with state legislators, the governor’s office, stakeholders and independent monitors tasked with tracking the state’s progress -- has until March 30 to present a formal plan for making the changes a reality.

“We are committed to the safety and well-being of the children we serve,” Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Howard Hendrick said in a release. “The strengths in our system allowed us to reach this agreement and our commitment to children extends far beyond the terms of this agreement."

OKDHS Former Director Howard Hendrick
Recently retired OKDHS Director Howard Hendrick. Photo courtesy of OKDHS.

Designated the Oklahoma Pinnacle Project, DHS officials have already taken a number of steps to start developing the improvement plan. The department recently convened a statewide summit with DHS child welfare staff to identify areas of need and solicit recommendations for improvements.

“We’ve made a lot of strides in the last few years,” Powell said, citing nearly a quarter decrease in the number of children in state foster care, at least in part due to increased adoptions and placement of foster youth with family or relatives.

Oklahoma has the highest adoption rate per capita in the country, Powell said. Roughly 8,000 kids are currently in the foster care system, down from more than 11,000 in 2008.

Three independent monitors, known as co-neutrals, will oversee the progress throughout the duration of the improvements, filing regular reports on the progress of OKDHS in key performance areas.

You can follow the progress at


Children’s Rights shows no signs of slowing down.

In addition to Children’s Rights 11 active cases, six states and districts have completed court-order improvement plans successfully – including Kansas, New York City and New Mexico.

“These cases require a lot of resources. We are obligated to prove the facts that children are being harmed,” Lowry said, explaining that often means expert testimony, public documents and open record requests, along with a considerable investment in staff resources.

“This is solely about fixing the system for children going forward,” she said.

Children’s Rights generally invests eight to 12 months of research before ever filing a legal challenge in a state, and with good reason. The firm doesn’t seek monetary damages, only the reimbursement of legal expenses. Under federal law, state’s can be required to refund negotiated legal dues only if the suit is successful.

“I think these cases are real examples that our civil rights’ laws are still there and how they can be used to protect our children,” Lustbader said.

Lowery said the firm is currently researching and investigating a number of other states, but declined to go into detail until after a final decision is made on whether to pursue legal action.

Like Most Other States, Oklahoma Programs for At-Risk Students Grapple with Budget Cuts

Juveniles programs across the nation deal with cutbacks at the start of fiscal year 2012Like many state-run juvenile programs across the nation Oklahoma’s alternative education and at-risk student initiatives have had to deal with the realities of budget cuts following the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

Times are tough everywhere, and in some states tougher then in others. But a glimpse at the specific cutbacks in the Sooner State can give one a sense of just what kind of pain supporters and participants of some crucial programs are in for.

Gone is 4.7 percent of funding for alternative schools, a combined $385,000 from Tulsa alternative programs, and $1.2 million from the Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center.

For principal Amie Hardy of the Jenks Alternative Center the most devastating blow wasn’t the 4.7 percent budget reduction, she told NewsOK, but rather the loss of the statewide evaluator that pushed the school’s alternative programs to be their best. In Jenks' case, the 4.7 percent budget shortfall is being picked up by the Jenks School District.

The Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center, which reviewed the state’s alternative education programs, has “been kind of overwhelmed” with letters from citizens concerned about the loss of the evaluators. The center also lost funding for other contracts including professional development programs for teachers, Director Kathy KcKean told NewsOK.

Street School Program in Tulsa, Okla.

A truancy program and a 'Street School' program ran by the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau, two initiatives that served some of Tulsa’s most at-risk students, faced cuts of $200,000 and $185,000 respectively. The 'Check and Connect' truancy program, designed to keep tabs on students at risk of skipping school, was scaled back from serving five schools to just three.

The cuts to Street School, an alternative education program for roughly 90 youth that deal with life issues that distract for education, accounted for about 15 percent of the programs total budget.

Oklahoma's Schools Activity Fund covers alternative programs and accounts for a portion of the state's $2.27 billion education budget. The schools activity budget was reduced from $419.8 million in 2011 t0 $401.2 for fiscal year 2012. A breakdown of all the cutbacks by category is available here.