Over the last twenty years, the United States has seen a steady drop in crime rates, including in juvenile crime. From the peak offense era of the 1990s to today, juvenile crime arrests have dropped across the board in leaps and bounds. Robbery and aggravated assault rates have both dropped by 70% since the 1990s, simple assaults are down by 49%, and murder rates have fallen a staggering 82%. The continuously falling crime rates are not necessarily attributable to any one particular action or policy, however, which leads to some debate among activists and lawmakers over which policies are making the biggest differences to help with this issue. There are a few contributing factors, however, that do show significant impact upon juvenile crime rate reduction.
One proposed reason behind the falling juvenile crime rate is the increased attention being given to at-risk or troubled juveniles before they end up arrested for committing a crime. By watching for risk factors that indicate a youth is on a path to becoming a juvenile offender, family and community members have the opportunity to intervene and send the youth to services aimed at preventing system involvement. These interventions have been shown to help prevent the “cradle to prison pipeline” many at-risk youths become entangled in. There are many different types of programs currently being used in cities across the United States: behavior management, conflict resolution, and violence prevention classes, bullying prevention, after-school recreation, mentoring, and school organizations number among the most popular. Youth.gov is an online resource for information about such programs. A website created by twenty different federal agencies that aim to help support youth programs, Youth.gov compiles information accessible to every community around the country in order to provide tools to help them implement intervention plans. They include links to evidence-based youth programs developed for at-risk youths, and advocate the development and implementation of programs in every city to help prevent, intervene, and treat youth violence issues.
Even after a juvenile is arrested for committing a crime, many states have in recent years begun encouraging rehabilitation efforts instead of imprisonment. This shift echoes the public’s perception of rehabilitation versus imprisonment; a 2007 study by Models For Change indicated that the public was willing to pay, on average, an additional 20% in taxes annually on rehabilitation for offenders. Public surveys in general indicate more support for rehabilitation services, because of the higher value perceived in having a person return as a contributing member of society rather than remain incarcerated for perhaps many years. Tying in to the public opinion is an additional fiscal reason given consideration for the falling juvenile crime rate. The increased cost of incarceration per juvenile has led states to consider alternatives to traditional jail sentences. A 2015 study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute, a non-profit that aims to reduce incarceration rates by promoting “fair and effective” policy, puts into numbers the annual costs associated with juvenile incarceration. The average maximum cost across the United States was a staggering $148,767 per juvenile per year, all of which is funded by taxpayer dollars. The study estimates that the total cost of juvenile detentions ranges from $8 billion to $21 billion each and every year. In contrast to this, youth advocate and rehabilitative programs cost taxpayers just $21,000 per juvenile per year. In 2005, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy conducted a study on behalf of the Washington state government, who were projecting having to spend $750 million by 2030 to build three new prisons to house the growing adult and juvenile prison populations. The WSIPP was tasked with analyzing corrections and prevention programs to find the best “investment” of tax dollars to reduce crime and thus avoid having to build the new prisons. The report found that the government could save $2 billion, two and a half times the amount needed to build the prisons, if they instead invested in evidence-based alternatives to incarceration. The state implemented WSIPPs recommendations, and a follow up study in 2009 found that, after investing $48 million in evidence-based programs, the state had reduced its forecasted budget for new prisons. Other such instances of success include the state of Florida, which saved $36.4 million between 2005 and 2008 by sending juvenile offenders to diversion programs rather than detention. Pennsylvania employs seven juvenile programs as alternatives to incarceration, and a 2008 study found that they had saved the state a combined $317 million dollars. With such staggering reductions in state funding requirements, these three states stand as stellar examples of what other states can and should do to reduce their juvenile detention costs.
“The real question is not who’s responsible and why did this happen, but if it does not continue to come down, what do we do in terms of policy and practice?” says Jeffery Butts, who leads the Research and Evaluation Center at University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Butts, a former analyst for the National Center for Juvenile Justice, argues that agencies attempting to take credit for the declining juvenile arrest rates ignores the importance of taking further action to continue the trend, which could make arrest rates stagnate. A 2018 public opinion poll showed that 75% of crime victims prefer community-based rehabilitation programs to traditional incarceration. This interest of the public in offender rehabilitation, combined with the government interest in cost reduction, will hopefully combine to keep more juveniles out of the detention system and further the interest in effective rehabilitative programs for juveniles- programs such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST): a scientifically-proven intervention for juveniles and at-risk youth. MST Therapists treat families within their homes, schools, and communities, to keep children from falling into the cycle of recidivism and out-of-home placement.