“A quiet revolution in juvenile justice”

In the late eighties and nineties, the number of youth in county and state facilities soared to an all-time high (108,802 by 2000). Policymakers and the public feared a wave of “out-of-control juvenile crime and a coming generation of  ‘super-predators.’” States introduced new laws, and built more prisons and jails to house the youth coming into the system.

But in this past decade, the pendulum looks to be swinging the other way: according to a report released today, the number of youth in detention “plummeted” by 39 percent by 2010 (to 66,322).

“The Comeback States: Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States” comes out of an unlikely partnership: the National Juvenile Justice Network, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Acknowledging in the forward that “even though we have different constituencies and priorities,” they agree:

• Incarceration is often over-utilized and that states now have a range of more cost-effective alternatives that better serve public safety.

• A growing body of research shows that incarcerating youth can have lasting negative impacts on their prospects as future citizens and on public safety.

• The high recidivism rates associated with many youth lockups partly stem from disconnecting youth from their families, religious and spiritual connections, schools, and other pro- social elements of civil society that enrich neighborhoods and communities.

• Though we applaud the hard work that many states have undertaken to reduce the unnecessary confinement of youth in trouble with the law, there’s a long road ahead, not just for the nine states profiled in this report, but for every jurisdiction.

2570753935_6492fc1873Those states are frontrunners for their policies that led to the closing of youth prisons and jails, shrunk the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” changed laws so that youth were not put behind bars for minor offenses, shifted how money was spent and moved more of it towards community alternatives.

The report highlights New York as one of the nine “comeback states”—states whose population of incarcerated youth has gone down at a rate higher than the national rate. According to the report, youth incarceration in New York went down by 43 percent from 2001 to 2010.

The United States still incarcerates more children and adolescents than any other country in the world. And it’s important to recognize that the data in the report isn’t factoring in the youth who are tried as adults. While the report illustrates that New York is leading the pack in lowering its population of kids in prison, New York is one of only two states in the country that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. According to the Correctional Association,

New York also prosecutes 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds charged with certain serious offenses as adults. These young people are subject to lifelong criminal records and drastic consequences including denial of educational loans, barriers to employment, deportation, and loss of housing for both themselves and their families. Children prosecuted as adults have been shown to return to prison at higher rates than those prosecuted in juvenile courts.

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