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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.”

Major Juvenile Service Cuts Coming to Utah as Part of State’s Legislative Budget

After the loss of key federal funding and the end of a stopgap measure, state lawmakers in Utah are cutting the budgets of agencies providing crucial services to juvenile services.

After a federal decision to suspend funding of non-medical expenditures associated with residential care was made two years ago, Utah legislators provided its state agencies - such as Juvenile Justice Services (JJS) and Division of Child and Family Services (DFCS) - with emergency stopgap funds. This legislative session, however, stopgap funding for juvenile services programs ceased, with state legislators issuing an additional $3.2 million in budget cuts.

The impact of the federal decision on Utah was severe, costing the state an estimated $27 million in Medicaid funding. In the process, Utah’s JJS ended up losing an estimated $9 million per year, with the state DFCS agency losing an estimated $18 million annually.

The budget cuts are expected to eliminate 46 jobs in the state, with an additional 23 eliminated when the Weber Valley Detention Center closes next year. Six counties will see a reduction in youth center beds, with a majority of the state’s youth centers initializing a reduction in operating hours.

The cutbacks are most severe in Salt Lake County and Utah County, which will see a $222,900 reduction and a $121,500 reduction in funding, respectively.

While last-minute funding was amassed in order to keep most of the state’s facilities running through 2013, many analysts believe the cutbacks to rural communities may prove too much to surmount.

Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbet, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the cuts were “disheartening and tragic in so very many ways.”

"We’d like to see it addressed in future budgets,” she said. “Because if we don’t assist many of these youth in their present situation, they often end up in the adult system and incur further social costs and greater family tragedy.”

Photo from Randy Calderone.

Anti-Bullying Programs Pushed Aside by Federal Budget Woes

Teachers, counselors and administrators brainstorm during anti-bullying workshop at the Cobb County School District. Photo credit: Ken Edelstein

On March 10, President Obama turned up the spotlight on school bullying. For a couple of years, a handful of high-profile tragedies — often having to do with the rising problem of students picking on other students via social media — had brought unprecedented attention to the issue.

Now, the White House was holding its first ever “Conference on Bullying Prevention.” And the president and the First Lady welcomed an audience of parents, educators, advocates and government officials by expressing how seriously they took the issue -- both as leaders and as parents.

“We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help,that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them,” Obama said. “We also have to make sure we’re doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place.”

Here’s the irony: At the same time that educators, parents and politicians decry bullying and other school violence, the Obama administration has presided over the elimination of all funding for the chief federal program designed to prevent school violence — a program that had been the backbone for anti-school-violence efforts across the country.

From 1987 through 2009, Congress sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities grants to the states. That money funded violence prevention programs in almost every school district in the country.

But those programs have been running on fumes for the last two years. Faced with federal budget problems, Congress opted in 2009 to eliminate Safe and Drug Free Schools grants entirely. Because districts were allowed to spend Safe and Drug Free School grants they received in 2009 over the course of 27 months, the funding shortfall is slowing rippling to the local level.

In Utah, despite a healthy dose of state money that supports its violence prevention programs, one of the largest school districts was forced this year to lay off 12 people who were showing teachers and kids how to avoid violence at the school level. And in Cobb County, Georgia, the administrator of an anti-bullying program that’s held out as a state-wide model expects he’ll be dismantling that program by next fall.

“Right now, there won’t be money for this in September,” says Jeff Inman, Cobb’s coordinator for violence and prevention programs.

Together with two highly-qualified staff specialists -- whom he refers to as his “bully professionals” -- Inman runs a multilevel anti-bullying program. In addition to dealing with the problem at the high-school level, the program is designed to teach elementary and middle-school students what bullying is, how to help stop it, and how to avoid it. The theory is that it’s a lot less costly — both for the kids and from a budget standpoint — to prevent bullying from ever occurring than to have to deal with the outfall from it later.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk with parents Sirdeaner Walker and Kirk Smalley in the Blue Room of the White House before the start of the Conference on Bullying Prevention, March 10, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But, if the federal money isn’t reinstated, Inman doesn’t know how the district will be able to pay his “bully professionals,” or for that matter how the district can continue to help schools teach their students how to avoid bullying,

In 2010, Kevin Jennings, a U.S. Department of Education official, did manage to put two much smaller funding sources in place as a partial replacement for Safe and Drug Free Schools. But the first of those, Safe and Supportive Schools grants, are being provided to only 11 states that had to compete for the money; in most cases even those states are receiving less than what they’d been getting through Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Jennings also worked to obtain “bridge grants” — ostensibly to help programs make the transition to other funding sources. In most cases, however, those funding sources haven’t been available, leading advocates to refer to the bridge grants as “bridge-to-nowhere grants.”

The cutbacks stunned the counselors and school administrators closest to the programs — not just because they believe the programs have been well-worth the investment, but also because they thought, that after years of declining budgets, Obama administration officials were sure to be allies.

“We were really surprised,” one state official said. “We thought we would get more support. We were fighting off Republican plans to make all these cutbacks for years. But then Obama came in, and just like that it’s all gone."

Those involved in violence prevention at the local level say the Safe and Drug Free Schools cuts are dismantling an entire infrastructure of professionals, programs and relationships that has served as the backbone for efforts to combat bullying, drugs and other social problems in the schools.

“Some of those people are just disappearing,” says Verne Larsen, a Utah education official who chairs the National Network of Safe & Drug Free Schools and Communities. “You take the people away and the program really fails. ... It kinds of rips at our heart strings when we see something like this happening.”

Larsen expresses some hope that Congress and the Obama Administration will find the money to support violence prevention programs. He notes that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, earlier this month unveiled his Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act, which would bundle a wide variety of “conditions-for-learning” programs into one umbrella grant program.

For the last few years, conditions for learning were grouped under Title IV of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, but they were funded as a variety of programs, ranging from Safe and Drug Free Schools to smaller nutrition and physical education programs. Harken is hoping to incorporate his bill into an updated education authorization bill that Congress is working on this year.

“I think they’re beginning to realize at the federal level that they just did away with the structure that was running these programs,” Larsen says.

Even if that’s the case, however, funding the programs will be an uphill battle. On May 13, House Republicans unveiled a list of 43 more Title IV programs that they would like to see eliminated; the House seems to be in no mood to revive a program that’s already been killed off.

Then, on May 19, anti-violence advocates received another blow: Jennings, the deputy assistant secretary of education who was perceived as the advocates’ chief ally in the administration announced that plans to leave his post to run a nonprofit organization.