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Misdirected Juvenile Justice Consensus Creates Backwards Policy

California has experienced a huge decrease in juvenile crime. Over the last 35 years, arrests of youth ages 15-17 fell from 195,300 to 64,500, arrests of ages 12-14 fell from 77,500 to 21,200, and arrests of youth under 12 fell from 14,000 to 1,200 (see figure). When changes in population are factored in, rates of arrest fell by 73 percent among high schoolers, 79 percent among middle-schoolers, and 94 percent among grade schoolers.

These massive declines suggest revolutionary changes in everything we thought we knew about crime, demanding radically new systemic responses. Yet, they have received virtually no recognition among the criminal justice establishment, which bumbles along with plans to expand the juvenile justice system and resurrect youth facility construction. They continue the same alternating cycle of standard punishment and “new” therapy founded in traditional 19th century assumptions that crime is a fixed, innate feature of youth.

One could argue the collective mindset of mainstream authorities lags 30 to 50 years behind real trends, but that is not quite accurate. When rates of youth crime temporarily increased from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, authorities noticed immediately. Led by quotable experts such as James Alan Fox, John DiIulio, and James Q. Wilson, policy forums and the media rang with alarms of “adolescent superpredators,” “teenage…sociopaths,” even murderous second graders, forecasting an apocalyptic youthful “crime storm.”

Yet, experts somehow missed the larger, 40-year nosedive in youth crime. What explains this?

The exploitation of crime trends is another consequence of what I term “privatized social policy.” Information – even crucial information with major policy implications – is ignored or distorted if it doesn’t serve the immediate needs the dominant power structure in a social policy field. For criminal justice, this includes a consortium of law enforcement, service providers, researchers, media, and political interests granted de facto “ownership”. These interests flourish when juvenile crime (or manufactured fear of it) increases.

Leaders’ expediently selective attention to juvenile crime trends coincides with the effect on justice system institutions. Along with the plunge in juvenile arrests, the number of youth prosecuted and sentenced in California’s juvenile justice system plunged from 285,000 in 1980 to 87,000 in 2014, including a 52 percent drop in referrals to treatment facilities and programs, a 62 percent decline in probation referrals, and an 84 percent decrease in cases handled. (Given the increase of one million youth age 10-17 in California, the declines by rate are more spectacular still.)

Source: Wikipedia

Over the last five years alone, juvenile court dispositions, adult court dispositions, and wardship placements have fallen by 45 to 60 percent. Youth detentions dropped by more than half from 2009 to 2014, prompting the state to close eight of its 11 juvenile detention facilities, with local juvenile halls and camps also shuttered or scaled down.

Thus, the juvenile crime plummet that is terrific news for Californians is a disaster for established interests facing severe budget cuts, which impact staffing and facilities. Of course, there is still “gold” in the 600 percent increase in arrests of people over 40 in the last 35 years, but retooling the system to serve an older population is a daunting political challenge. There is no “middle-aged superpredator” image equivalent to the heartlessly impulsive adolescent established interests relentlessly taught us to fear.

Instead – even as crime rates of teenaged youths have fallen below those of adults in their 40s – we are seeing a powerfully unified campaign by justice-system interests brandishing dubious “brain science” to depict adolescents as biologically compelled to criminal behavior and more in need of justice-system intervention than ever.

The bizarre paradox is that the huge decline in juvenile offending (to the point that adolescents can no longer be called “crime prone” in any sense) has created threats to the juvenile system (to the point of potential abolition of state youth corrections) that, in turn, heighten the appeal of revived bio-determinist arguments. It is time for the governor, legislature, and academic authorities to exercise leadership, celebrate the decline in juvenile crime, rein in the interest groups, and explore sensible reallocation of justice-system resources to more promising investments in young people.

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions, Juvenile Justice

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