New research has found that reports of soaring youth crime are not only unfounded but also fueling calls for tougher sentencing.
Data from the Sentencing Project showed that the share of crime in the United States committed by young people has more than halved over the past two decades. It also fell across all major offense types in 2020.
Richard Mendel, senior researcher for The Sentencing Project and author of the report, said given the stress young people have faced over the past two years, he wouldn’t be surprised if future data showed an increase in crime juvenile in the era of the pandemic. But he argued that a temporary increase should not be used to justify a return to “resilient” approaches.
“Now is not the time to panic about youth crime,” Mendel explained. “Especially if this panic is going to cause us to embrace solutions that we know the evidence shows don’t work.”
According to the report, juvenile detention and transfers to adult court can worsen outcomes for young people. Instead, Mendel pushed for reforms to help steer young people away from delinquency, including reducing reliance on youth confinement and investing more in social and mental health supports in schools and communities.
Mendel pointed to Ohio as a national model for reducing youth incarceration through RECLAIM Ohio, which provides financial incentives to counties to divert youth from Ohio Department of Youth Services institutions to programs community.
“The research on this is overwhelmingly positive that children do much better,” Mendel reported. “In terms of re-arrest, in terms of re-incarceration, in community programs than in incarceration. And yet this program has been attacked.”
A commission is reviewing the past three years of the program after learning that the suspect in the shooting death of a Cleveland police officer was on probation in juvenile court. The youth services population has grown from a peak of more than 2,600 in May 1992 to 375 in December 2020, which officials attribute to the success of RECLAIM Ohio.
Meanwhile, Cuyahoga and Columbus County officials have reported a recent increase in stolen cars and carjackings among young minors. But Mendel thinks media coverage of youth crime is often sensational and lacks critical context.
“There’s a lot of political expediency being applied,” Mendel observed. “It’s important to be skeptical, to seek context and look at historical data. Is it really true?”
The report notes that in the absence of published federal data on carjackings, increases in a number of cities do not necessarily indicate a national trend.
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