Throughout the pandemic, a flurry of alarming news coverage and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians have appeared in national1 and local2 media highlighting serious violent crimes by youth. The issue has generated considerable political attention in Congress3 and across the country, and it has fueled calls to scale back youth justice reforms enacted in many states and to derail proposed reforms in others.4
This report explains why these calls for a return to get-tough youth justice policies are misguided, based on a false narrative regarding recent trends in youth crime and what actually works to prevent delinquency and promote youth success.
Our nation must always take vigilant action steps to increase public safety, starting with common sense gun regulations to limit access to deadly weapons. But the nation must be clear-eyed about the nature and dimensions of youth violence and cannot allow media-fueled concerns over crime or election-year political posturing to distract attention from efforts to mobilize urgently needed social, emotional, and mental health support for young people in their schools and communities.5
The Sentencing Project’s review of the available data about youth violence during the pandemic finds scarce evidence of a youth-led crime wave. Rather, most of the data suggest that youth violence has been flat or declining.
The share of crimes in the U.S. committed by youth has fallen by more than half over the past two decades, and it continued to fall for all major offense categories in 2020 (the most recent year for which data are available). The overall number of serious violent offenses (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) committed by youth also declined in 2020. While the number of homicides committed by youth increased as part of a worrisome national spike, 7.5% of homicide arrests in 2020 involved youth under 18 – a slightly smaller share than in previous years.6 Meanwhile, media coverage highlighting youth involvement in carjacking has often gone well beyond the known facts or omitted critical context.
Especially now, after all of the hardship and trauma and disruption youth have endured during the pandemic, it would be foolhardy to return to outdated, overly punitive responses to youth offending that exacerbate racial disparities and contradict the known evidence about adolescent brain development and about what works to promote youth success and protect public safety.
Back in 2000, 15% of all arrests nationwide were people under age 18. By 2019, the last year for which nationally representative arrest data are available, the youth share of arrests had fallen to 7% – a drop of more than half. This decline in youth’s share of arrests spans every major crime category.
Over the past 25 years, arrest rates have declined far more quickly for youth than adults. For instance, the combined youth arrest rate for all serious violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) fell 72% from 1994 to 2019 – far greater than the decline for any adult age cohort.7
Examples include: Nickeas, P. and Krishnakumar, P. (2022, Jan. 23). ‘It’s a Disturbing Trend.’ Cities See Large Increases in Carjackings During Pandemic. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/01/23/us/carjackings-rise-major-cities-pandemic/index.html; Corley, C. (2021, Feb. 10). Juveniles Part of a Huge Increase in Carjackings. NPR.https://www.npr.org/2021/02/10/964609023/juveniles-part-of-a-huge-increase-in-carjackings-across-the-country; Pagones, S. (2021, Apr. 8). Kids Committing More Carjackings and Violent Crimes Amid Remote Schooling, Court Slowdowns. Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/us/carjackings-crimes-juveniles-remote-schooling-court-slowdowns; Campbell, R. (2022, Mar. 1). ‘I Honestly Believe It’s a Game.’ Why Carjacking is on the Rise Among Teens. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/01/us/car-theft-teens-pandemic.html.
Examples include: Miller, K. (2021, Jan. 28). Criminal Justice Expert Christopher Herrmann on the Uptick of Carjackings–in Chicago and Nationwide. WGNTV. https://wgntv.com/midday-news/criminal-justice-expert-christopher-herrmann-on-the-uptick-of-carjackings-in-chicago-and-nationwide/. Fox 32 News. (2022, Feb. 16). Chicago’s Top Cop Says 60 Percent of Carjacking Suspects are Juveniles. Fox 32. https://www.fox32chicago.com/news/chicagos-top-cop-says-60-percent-of-carjacking-suspects-are-juveniles; Perlstein, M. (2022, Feb. 24). Juveniles Committing Most Carjackings, According to Police Stats. 4WWL. https://www.wwltv.com/article/news/investigations/juveniles-committing-most-carjackings-according-police-stats/289-25cc24ba-0363-457d-9580-038c67fbdc29.
Federal Support for Preventing and Responding to Carjackings, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 117th Cong. (2022). https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/federal-support-for-preventing-and-responding-to-carjackings.
Altimari, D. (2022, Mar. 16). Connecticut Lawmakers Weigh Bills to Address Crimes Committed by Children and Teens. Hartford Courant. https://www.courant.com/politics/hc-pol-juvenile-crime-hearing-20220316-wbuq2yf2cjdprlpxvctivxzoqy-story.html; WDRB. (2022, Mar. 28). Senate Committee Passes Bill Aimed at Cutting Down Juvenile Crime in Kentucky. WDRB. https://www.wdrb.com/news/senate-committee-passes-bill-aimed-at-cutting-down-on-juvenile-crime-in-kentucky/article_261bd35a-aefd-11ec-9971-af2b4cdab7ad.html; Slatery, D. (2022, Mar. 21). Youth Groups Fight Hochul’s ‘Raise the Age’ Change Amid Battle Over Bail and Budget. NY Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/new-york-elections-government/ny-youth-groups-hochul-raise-the-age-change-bail-budget-20220321-b5gvcygg3raqjeihywl2gvnwcm-story.html; Editorial Board. (2022, Mar. 16). Cleveland Carjacking Spike Should Prompt Review of How Armed Youth Crimes are Handled. Cleveland.com. https://www.cleveland.com/opinion/2022/03/cleveland-carjacking-spike-should-prompt-review-of-how-armed-youth-crimes-are-handled.html; Lyden, T. (2022, Feb. 3). Fox 9. https://www.fox9.com/news/no-easy-answers-in-debate-on-how-to-deal-with-repeat-juvenile-offenders-in-carjacking-cases.
Mendel, R. (2021, Aug. 31). Back-to-School Action Guide: Re-Engaging Students and Closing the School to Prison Pipeline. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/back-to-school-action-guide-re-engaging-students-and-closing-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/.
Author’s calculation, using data from FBI Crime Data Explorer, available at https://crime-data-explorer.app.cloud.gov/pages/explorer/crime/arrest.
OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. Age-Specific Arrest Rate Trends. Available: https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/qa05301.asp?qaDate=2019. Released on November 16, 2020.