The incarceration rate for juvenile offenders has fallen to the lowest level since the federal government began tracking it in 1997, a change brought on by a combination of falling crime rates and forward-thinking criminal justice reforms.
Over the past generation, there has been a 60 percent drop in the rate at which juvenile offenders whose cases have been adjudicated are confined to residential facilities in the juvenile justice system. Whereas about 1 in 400 youths were committed to juvenile justice facilities in 1997, only 1 in 1,000 were in 2015. The change has been remarkably widespread: The commitment rate dropped in 48 of the 50 states.
As crime has decreased over the past 20 years, arrest rates have dropped by a third, with the largest drop being among the young. This naturally translates into fewer juveniles being committed to correctional facilities.
But the juvenile justice system hasn’t been merely a windsock benefiting passively from falling crime. In state after state, lawmakers have increasingly focused confinement on violent and chronic juvenile offenders. This reduces confinement directly in the short term and may have an even more important effect over time.
Adolescents who commit criminal or antisocial acts are — like most adolescents — influenced heavily by their peers. Accumulating research shows that adolescents who engage in antisocial behavior often escalate when they have regular contact with other troubled adolescents, even when the contact is intended to be therapeutic. Putting a chronically truant teenager into a residential facility with young people convicted of assault and burglary, for example, can make it more, rather than less, likely that the teenager will reoffend.
As states divert young people who commit less serious offenses from confinement and into alternative supervision and service programs in the community, they reduce the risks that such individuals will become hardened criminals as they grow up. This is particularly true for those states that are wise enough to reinvest some of the savings from reduced incarceration into rehabilitative community services for delinquent youths.
Jake Horowitz of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works closely with states on juvenile justice reform legislation, describes the changes of recent years as reflecting a confluence of evidence, policy and politics. “State leaders from both sides of the aisle are following the research and public opinion to craft policy solutions that achieve more public safety with less correctional control,” he said. Juvenile justice reform can thus be deservedly celebrated as a bipartisan achievement that benefited both troubled young people and the general public.