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Youth incarceration at 35-year low nationally

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a new report this week highlighting a national 35-year low in youth incarceration with drops across almost every state. Despite this decline in youth crime, it is clear that state and local policies do not reflect an investment in achieving the goals of long-term public safety. Youth incarceration has decreased substantially across all racial groups, the report finds, although African-American youth are still five times more likely to be confined than their white counterparts. Since peaking in 1995, the total number of incarcerated youth nationally has dropped by 37,000 to 70,792 and the rate of youth confinement has dropped by 41% during the same time period. Lest policy-makers and advocates become too self-congratulatory, the report notes soberly that the United States still incarcerates a larger share of its youth population than any other developed country.

Youth continue to be incarcerated largely for non-violent offenses.  The report finds that only 1 in 4 incarcerated youth were convicted of a violent offense, while nearly 40% of juvenile detentions were due to technical violations of probation, drug possession, low-level property offenses, public order offenses and status offenses. Status offenses are activities that would not be crimes for adults, such as possession of alcohol or truancy. This means most confined youth pose relatively low public safety risks.

Massive incarceration spending, few results.
 A report released in 2008 by the foundation calculated total state spending on juvenile detention surpassing $5 billion, yet with few promising results. The same report found that three-quarters of incarcerated youth in the study were re-arrested within three years. The most recent available data shows that California’s state youth corrections system has an 80% recidivism rate within three years, at a cost of $260,000 per youth. States continue to invest taxpayer dollars heavily in incarceration policies yet communities are seeing little return in long-term public safety.

Investing in community-based alternatives. Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests several ways to reduce reliance on incarceration and to improve the outcomes for justice-involved youth. These include restricting incarceration to youth posing a clear risk to public safety; investing in alternatives that effectively supervise, sanction and treat youth in their homes and communities, and encouraging states — which often have policies that provide unintended financial incentives for cities and counties to use incarceration — to seek community-based alternatives.

“Locking up young people has lifelong consequences, as incarcerated youth experience lower educational achievement, more unemployment, higher alcohol and substance abuse rates and greater chances of run-ins with the law as adults.  Our decreasing reliance on incarceration presents an exceptional opportunity to respond to juvenile delinquency in a more cost-effective and humane way — and to give these youth a real chance to turn themselves around.” 

Bart Lubow , Director of the Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

Research demonstrates that in order to cultivate a 21st century approach to juvenile justice investments must be made in local solutions. Jurisdictions across the county have demonstrated that effective juvenile justice systems maintain youth in their community on local supervision where they have better access to their family and support networks, where sustainable connections can be made to community-services, and where youth can grow to be engaged members of their community.

Keywords: Brian Heller de Leon, crime trends, national, youth

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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