New Study Finds a Dramatic Drop in Youth Incarceration Rates

Thanks to falling youth crime rates and cash-strapped states (seriously), juveniles are less likely to land in prison. But when it comes to racial disparities, the devil remains in the details.

By Julianne Hing Mar 01, 2013

The U.S. may be home to the world’s largest prison population, but youth incarceration is on the decline. The nation’s juvenile incarceration rate has dropped 41 percent from its peak in 1995, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Casey researchers examined the most recent federal census of juvenile prisoners and found that in 2010 there were 70,792 young people were behind bars, compared to 107,637 in ’95. The sharpest decline came in the last five years. 

Rather than a grand consensus on prison reform, the decrease reflects what Bart Lubow, director of the Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, calls "a perfect storm of circumstances." Juvenile crime rates have consistently fallen, long-term lockup for youth isn’t as prevalent, and the current economic crisis has forced cash-strapped states and counties to find cheaper alternatives to incarceration."A convergence of [these] factors have produced something remarkably un-American: the reduction of the use of incarceration," says Lubow. 

From 1997 to 2010, all but six states reduced their youth incarceration rates. Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Tennessee cut their rates in half. And according to the Casey research, fewer kids in prison hasn’t compromised public safety, which suggests that mass incarceration need not be the crutch America leans on when dealing with complex social problems.

Race Complicates Things

Although juvenile imprisonment is down among all racial groups, the decreases haven’t occurred in equal proportions.Black youth are still nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. And Latino and American Indian youth are two to three times as likely as  white boys and girls to land behind bars. The people who create juvenile justice policy must confront and dismantle the structural racism undergirding the system, says Lubow. Otherwise, "the math alone means that the only way the disproportionality would be changed would be by locking up more white kids." 

Stats Versus Lived Experience

To hear young people of color who’ve been through this system tell it, the falling incarceration rates are an abstraction that contradicts what they see, hear and feel. "I would say there are more people getting locked up than before," says Anthony, a black 19-year-old from Los Angeles who asked that we not use his last name. Anthony has been in and out of juvenile facilities, rehabilitation camps, and even the county jail. "When I first got locked up five years ago, I didn’t know anyone. But when I got out after the third time, that’s when I saw people I knew going to jail. I just don’t see a decrease."

Anthony’s first arrest happened in 2003 when he was a freshman at Fremont High School in South Central L.A. He’d heard that a friend was wounded in a gang-related fight on school grounds and ran toward the scene. In the meantime, another student hurt in the melee told a school security officer who in turn called school police. The kid who reported the fight fingered Anthony, his friend who had been in the fight and another friend who wasn’t involved. All three were arrested and since the incident took place on a Friday, they spent the weekend in jail. Juvenile court judges don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Anthony was sentenced to three years probation, which meant observing a curfew, undergoing drug tests, not leaving the state and not missing school. Not long into his probation, authorities caught him out of class during school hours and hauled him back to jail. "It’s like a revolving door," he says. Indeed, Anthony’s experience is not unusual."Youth incarceration has an incredibly bad impact on young people’s futures and is the strongest predictor of adult incarceration, far more than any other so-called criminogenic factor you can imagine," says Zachary Norris, co-director of Justice for Families, a national network of juvenile justice organizations. In a sweeping 2012 survey (PDF) of more than 1,000 families of incarcerated youth, Justice for Families found that one third of imprisoned kids were at school the first time they were arrested. So despite an overall decline in juvenile incarceration rates, young people are still being ensnared in the juvenile justice system via the school-to-prison pipeline, a system marked by zero-tolerance discipline policies and constant contact with police. Anthony has since earned a GED, but is still trying for a high school diploma. He’s also looking for work.

A Unique Opportunity

Of course a statistical decline in youth incarceration rates can’t change what happened to Anthony. But the Casey Foundation’s Lubow says that there are unique opportunities for policy change because youth crime rates are down and states’ have fewer dollars to spend on locking up minors. They’re more receptive to research that explores the roots of adolescent delinquency and the devastating impact of incarceration, he says. And they’re more willing to direct youth who have committed minor crimes to community-based alternatives to jail. 

"There is a sea change happening in juvenile justice and one that’s appearing in a special point in time, which is why we need to nail it down in a more sustainable way," Ludlow says. 

Kim McGill, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition, also sees an opportunity in the numbers."States these days can no longer afford [to rely on] mass incarceration as the solution to every so-called problem that crosses their path, whether it’s homelessness, truancy or mental health problems," she says. "But we must be vigilant. If we say, ‘Oh, incarceration is down so we can rest,’ then we’re doomed to repeat it once our economy [rebounds] and states start to lead with oppression again."