What a Drop in Youth Crime Says About Curfews and Boot Camps: Nothing Good

Juvenile crime rates plummeted in jail-happy Texas, but also in living-free California. Hold your conclusions.

Student detainees are issued clothes but allowed to have their own shoes at the Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center School in Fairfax, Virginia. The school educates kids who are serving sentences or awaiting trial. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/Getty Images)

Oct 30, 2012· 2 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Remember when violent video games, slasher movies and aggressive rap lyrics were blamed for motivating kids to commit crime? Of course, some argued, the end of civilization could only be averted with curfews and boot camps. The solution to juvenile crime was to take these troublesome youths off the streets and whip them into shape.

Well, as it turns out, juvenile crime is dropping around the country, and it isn’t thanks to the get-tough approach that was a fad in recent years.

Researchers trying to pinpoint the cause for the drop of underage criminality credit everything from after-school programs to changes in drug laws to growing tolerance among youth. But while experts remain puzzled about the dramatic swing, one thing is certain.

MORE: Life Without Parole: A Juvenile Injustice System (Infographic)

The drop in juvenile crime hasn’t resulted from kids getting locked up in prison, sent to a boot camp or any other get-tough approach, researchers say.

In fact, states such as California and Texas, which took divergent approaches to youth crime in the 1990s, have both seem dramatic decreases.

From 1995 to 2006, Texas increased by 48 percent the number of kids under 18 it locked up. Harsh sentencing practices, particularly against non-violent, property and drug offenders, were the main cause for the increase.

“Imprisonment seems to have no effect on youth crime,” Mike Males, CJCJ’s senior research fellow, tells TakePart. “It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything.”

At the same time, California reduced by 75 percent the number of juveniles incarcerated in youth prisons by imprisoning only its most violent offenders.

Despite the divergent policies, both states saw a dramatic 51-percent decrease in the number of youth arrested for felonies between 1995 and 2005, according to the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank based in San Francisco.

“Imprisonment seems to have no effect on youth crime,” Mike Males, CJCJ’s senior research fellow, tells TakePart. “It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything.”

Meanwhile, new data in California shows that youth crime has reached historic lows in the Golden State. Fewer youths were arrested in California last year (149,563) than at any time since 1957, when the state had 3 million fewer teenagers roaming its streets, according to the CJCJ.

“Murder among youths in California is down to its lowest rates ever recoded,” says Males.

Moreover, fewer young people are being put behind bars. Nearly eight out of 10 juveniles arrested last year were referred to county juvenile probation departments—not sent to prison, according to the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center.

Still, around 25 percent of the youth crime decline from 2010 to 2011 is attributable to Sacramento changing the state’s marijuana laws. Lawmakers reduced simple possession of marijuana from a crime to an infraction, which cut youthful misdemeanor marijuana arrests by 9,000 last year.

Researcher Males, who worked on a new CJCJ report on the causes in the drop of youth crime in California, notes the decrease in crime has come as California is growing increasingly diverse.

African Americans and Latinos, the fastest growing population demographic, are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than whites, statistics show. Despite the population growth in California among these groups—particularly Latinos—youth crime has been dropping.

“We’ve got to really change the way we talk about young people and crime,” Males says. “We've been hampered in looking at these trends by the whole image of youth and crime.

“California’s trends are really challenging that,” he adds.

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