Keeping Kids Out of Prison


An August 28 report from Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project revealed that between 1997 and 2011, the juvenile commitment rate in the United States had fallen by an estimated 48 per cent.

Citing data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the report noted that between 2010-11, more than 40 states recorded reductions in their committed youth populations over the one-year period.

Considering the progress made in the field of juvenile justice over the past two decades, , a decline in juvenile commitments is not surprising.

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, there has been a general decline in juvenile arrests, court referrals and detention. There have also been tremendous strides in the area of juvenile justice.

Much of this work has been spearheaded by private entities, such as the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change Initiative.

Officially launched in 2004, Models for Change is now a 16-state national initiative that advances juvenile justice system reforms that effectively hold young people accountable for their actions, provide for their rehabilitation, protect them from harm, increase their life chances, and manage the risk they pose.

While the decline in juvenile commitments seems like a good thing, especially in terms of outcomes for kids and cost savings, if we want to accurately measure the effect these decreases have on public safety, we need to dig a bit deeper.

One of the most effective ways to evaluate outcomes in terms of public safety is to examine recidivism rates.

As the Virginia Department of Justice has noted “recidivism is the key statistic in determining whether or not criminal justice interventions, from diversion through incarceration, are making a difference in keeping offenders from committing more crimes. “

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) report, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report, “there is no national recidivism rate for juveniles. Such a rate would not have meaning since juvenile justice systems vary so much across states.”

In order to truly and accurately determine what decreased commitment numbers mean, it is necessary to look at recidivism numbers at the level of individual states.

However, since states vary considerably in terms of their definitions of “recidivism” (if they even have such a definition), it is important to recognize that the data being collected varies from state to state.

For example, some states only consider youths who are actually processed through the system, while others include a new arrest.

Also, there is no set agreement as to the time frame being considered: six months, one year, two years?

Given this variability, recidivism rates can vary tremendously and are hard to compare. And this can happen among different jurisdictions within the same state.

On top of that, there are still too many jurisdictions that are not tracking data and have no real sense of what is going on within their own state or county.

Fortunately, the importance of data has been one of the prevailing themes in the Models for Change Initiative and similar efforts are underway all over the country to accurately identify and measure the key benchmarks.

Some states are already doing this, with a fair amount of success.

For example, in Pennsylvania, the first state involved with the Models for Change work, one of the priorities of the Juvenile Justice Systems Enhancement Strategy was to adopt a standard definition of “recidivism.”

Pennsylvania defined it as: “a subsequent delinquency adjudication or conviction in criminal court for either a misdemeanor or felony offense within two years of case closure.”

This allows the state's juvenile system to measure in a meaningful and consistent way who is re-offending and how often.

The driving force that will answer the public safety question and what is truly happening in terms of reoffending and public safety is not a mystery.

It's data.

There is still a fear that lack of data could be one of the reasons for the declining numbers.

For that reason alone, every jurisdiction must work hard at making sure that they are collecting the numbers and establishing meaningful benchmarks. Otherwise, we are in danger of relying on false hope that “declining commitment rates” automatically equates to “increased public safety”.

Real progress in reducing the number of youths shuttled into the criminal justice pipeline will only come when comparisons are based upon actual data that has been defined and analyzed consistently.

Susan Broderick has been the Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR) since October of 2008. She welcomes comments from readers.

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