The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery County’s demonization of youths won’t solve any problems

A stock image of a gavel and handcuffs. (iStock)

Melissa C. Goemann is the senior policy counsel at the National Juvenile Justice Network.

It is clear by now that two plus years of this pandemic has caused unprecedented, widespread negative impacts on Americans’ physical, mental and financial health for both adults and children. It is not surprising that amid this upheaval, some localities saw an increase in crime. Yet despite data at the national, state and county levels showing a substantial and steady decline in youth offending over the past decade, an irresponsible narrative is taking hold that youth crime is starting to get out of control.

A quick scan of news headlines underscores just how unchecked this narrative of children has become. One data point being cited to support this narrative was that the number of youths under the age of 21 who have been deemed homicide suspects increased from three in 2021 to nine in 2022 in Montgomery County. Any homicide is one too many and requires us to address underlying causes; however, this data point alone cannot be responsibly categorized as a “surge in violence.” In fact, the number of youth suspects in both contact and non-contact shootings has decreased so far from 2021. The overall arrest data for Montgomery County also tells a different picture. The vast majority of arrests in the county are for adults, not youths. For example, in the most recent arrest data from June 1 to July 1, there were nine arrests of youths under 18 out of a total of 386 arrests in the county. In data from Jan. 1, 2018, to Nov. 8, 2021, there were 330 arrests for youths under 18 compared with 4,679 for those 18 and older).

Furthermore, though it is tempting to draw conclusions based on one point in time, conversations on youth crime must take place within a broader context. A review of data provided by Maryland and Montgomery County over the past decade also paints a different narrative about young people. Montgomery County referrals to the youth justice system declined 51.8 percent from 2011 through 2020 (the height of the pandemic). Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services also reported youth crime fell in all categories from 2012 through 2021. These trends showcase children thriving despite a global pandemic thrusting them into a new normal.

Narratives that criminalize youths without providing the fuller scope of circumstances have dangerous consequences. One only has to look back to the false “superpredator” myth of the 1990s to see the immense damage that can be wrought when unfounded projections are repeated and accepted as fact. Posited by influential criminologists and spread by journalists, dire predictions were made of a superpredator youth crime wave that never materialized. But the die was cast, and it led nearly every state in the nation to pass legislation significantly increasing the ability of states to try children as adults, throwing thousands of children into adult jails and prisons where many were physically and sexually abused. We live with the consequences of these laws today as many states, including Maryland, continue to automatically try many children as adults.

Scapegoating young people is not only damaging to the youths who are demonized, but it also hurts our ability to effectively analyze and then address issues of concern. When we view children as just that, children, we expand the menu of responses from “lock them up and throw away the key” to policies that meet youth needs and thereby increase public safety.

We call on everyone — journalists and politicians included — to take heed: Inflaming the fire of a moral panic directed at our children is not only reckless but also can cause severe and lasting harm to our young people while deflecting attention from the real problems. Understanding data contextually and seeking the full scope of young people’s experiences help us foster solutions-driven conversations that focus on how to resource services and supports to further help young people thrive.

Young people need compassion, support and solution-focused investments; let’s give them that.