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Analysis

Juvenile justice figures show kids are becoming more all right

Adults never tire of lamenting the behavior of the younger generation. “What’s wrong with these kids?” we ask. But the question facing Arizona today – while equally baffling – is more like “What’s right with these kids?” That’s because teenagers here and elsewhere in the country have been turning away from crime in remarkable numbers, according to federal and state-level data. And nobody’s sure why.

Nationwide, as recently reported in the Arizona Capitol Times, property crime arrest rates for juveniles 15-17 years old fell 57 percent between 1980 and 2012; the arrest rate for violent crimes dropped by 68 percent. In Arizona, statewide juvenile court data reflects the same dramatic trend. Referrals, the most common way juveniles enter the court system, were down from 50,251 in fiscal year 2012 to 34,721 in FY2016.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s overall youth population has been growing, not shrinking. And the state remains deeply mired in a number of social ills thought to nurture deviant behavior, such as poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.

So why this good news?

It would be nice to think that today’s kids are somehow ingesting a more potent sense of morality at an early age. Nice, but not convincing – and accepting it would still leave us with a mystery. Court officials suggested to the Capitol Times that kids might be too absorbed in social media or using up their aggressive urges playing video games. Clever, but also questionable.

There is one explanation for the drop that lots of Arizonans would like to believe: That the drop in juvenile misbehavior is due at least in part to Arizona’s decreasing use of incarceration of delinquents and increasing efforts to treat kids in their home communities.

It could be. There’s little disagreement among practitioners or researchers that locking up teenagers is a self-defeating move for both them and society at large. A large body of research has found that the routine use of incarceration does not reduce delinquency, and actually may promote it. That’s in part because adolescents’ brains are different from adults’ brains; much delinquent behavior reflects the fact that kids are less able to focus on tasks, resist impulsive actions and adhere to rules.

There is also the fact that a high percentage of children entering Arizona’s juvenile justice system suffer from mental illness and/or the aftermath of trauma; they need help, many officials and researchers say, more than punishment.

On the other hand, significant research has shown that community-based programs such as probation, intensive supervision, group homes and day reporting centers were more effective than traditional confinement programs in reducing recidivism and improving community adjustment.

Arizona has been putting these theories into practice, officials say, by strengthening community programs, using risk-assessment measures to place kids and by increasingly sending delinquents to treatment instead of confinement.

One result is that the number of youths confined in Adobe Mountain School, the state’s sole remaining secure lock-up for juveniles, has been dropping steadily for years and last month stood at just 182. It dipped to 159 last December before moving up again. Some of Adobe’s vacant space is now being used by the Department of Corrections as a “re-entry center” for adult inmates getting out of prison. The kids leave and the adults move in.

As noted above, this could, as noted above, support the long-standing arguments – often ignored and sometimes mocked – by people who advocate for “alternatives to incarceration.” Or, it might be merely a reflection of the fact that most crime by all age groups in most of America has been flat or declining for years. No, we’re not sure why that’s happening either.

But even if community-based approaches have actually worked in reducing juvenile crime, we might hold off on the celebrations. There’s the little matter of the thousands of adults confined in Arizona’s billion-dollar prison system. True, this population is also dropping, but only from 42,902 last June to 42,200 as of the end of last month.

Critics of the state’s adult prisons say that there are thousands of adult inmates who don’t need to be locked up and can be treated safely, effectively and more cheaply in the community. That is, the adults could be treated more like the kids.

Now, adult inmates are not kids, and there’s a lot of opposition to “alternatives” for adult inmates. But it sure seems that somebody is doing something right.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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