This commentary was originally posted in New York Amsterdam News.
The Washington Post ran one of those rare “Good News” items this month. A study by Stanford University psychiatry professor, Keith Humphreys (WonkBlog, Oct. 3), points to juvenile incarceration rates having fallen from 355 per 100,000 juveniles in 1997 to 152 in 2015. The number of youth locked up on a typical day fell from 110,126 in 2000 (the peak year) to 48,043 in 2015.
This drop happened even as states such as Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut expanded the scope of their juvenile justice systems by moving vastly more young people away from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts. With juvenile arrests down by two-thirds since 1997—two-thirds —celebration is in order.
Why isn’t it great news? Humphreys looks past the alarming and persistent racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile confinement, where change is heading in the wrong direction. For the Sentencing Project, I looked at youth incarceration this century and found that African-American youth, who were roughly four times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated in 2001, are now five times as likely. These disparities are not an isolated problem—they grew in 37 states and only shrank in 13. Hawaii is the only state where Black youth are less likely to be incarcerated than are white youth.
Neither the existence of these disparities nor their growth should be ignored. They reflect the decisions of adults, not the transient choices of teenagers.
Overall, though, it’s a big change. There were 1200 fewer juvenile facilities in 2014 than 2000, a drop from 3061 to 1852. Juvenile jails and prisons are, as the Casey Foundation’s Patrick McCarthy has put it, “factories of failure,” so we might have a delightful chicken-egg non-problem on our hands. Sending fewer teenagers to juvenile jails and prisons will mean fewer of them will return, meaning still more facilities can close.
These places are expensive (requiring 24-hour staff and utilities, along with more people required to cook meals, provide therapy and teach reading), so it’s been great news for budget hawks and taxpayers, not just for the young people themselves.
One of the most common reasons teenagers get arrested is for simple assault. According to the CDC, in 2015, 32.4 percent of Black youth reported being in a fight, as did 20.1 percent of white youth—that’s approximately 60 percent higher. But Black youth are 300 percent more likely to be arrested for simple assault and 400 percent more likely to be incarcerated for it.
At the other end of the spectrum, loitering and curfew violations rarely land a teenager behind bars, but Black youth are more than three times as likely to be arrested for these infractions. Unless one believes that Black teenagers stay out late three times as often as white teenagers, something important is going on here.
Native-American youth are three times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated. Latino youth’s incarceration disparities are significant but not as dramatic.
Incarceration disparities have grown across a range of offenses. One exception? Drugs. Back in 2001, Black youth were 600 percent more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than were white youth. That disparity fell to 250 percent—still appalling, given what we know about drug use among teenagers of all races, but still evidence that progress is possible.
We should celebrate the declines in incarceration among youth of all races and ethnicities. The virtuous circle of fewer children in confinement has been good for children and good for public safety. But let’s not overlook the way these changes aren’t benefiting all our children in the same way.
Joshua Rovner manages a portfolio of juvenile justice issues for The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy center in Washington, D.C.