Stuff I wish journalists would NOT do when covering juvenile crime and juvenile justice …

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by Jeffrey A. Butts
May 16, 2015

1. use the word “jail” as a synonym for juvenile incarceration, or use the word “detention” as a synonym for all forms of juvenile incarceration

2. use the words “juvenile justice system” when what they mean is juvenile corrections or incarceration facilities

3. assume that because someone says that juvenile records are “confidential” that it’s a waste of time to ask for those records, even people working in juvenile justice do not always know what confidentiality laws actually say

4. assume that all private and even for-profit agencies are evil and that all public agencies are incompetent and wasteful – there are good and bad public agencies and good and bad private agencies

5. habitually insert the modifier “only” in front of descriptions of juvenile court sanctions (e.g., the youth could be confined for only one year)

6. always note the offender’s race, ethnicity, poverty status, and family configuration, whether or not it’s pertinent to the story

7. assume that something must be true, accurate, and/or credible simply because it was said by the judge, or prosecutor, or police chief

8. assume that psychologists are the ultimate experts about everything to do with crime

9. assume that because economists are often unintelligible that they must be experts on crime

10. assume that because sociologists are often irreverent and irritating that they must be closer to “the community”

11. forget the fact that arrest statistics do not measure the incidence of crime, but rather the combination of reported crimes and police decision-making

12. use the word “youth” as a synonym for “juvenile” without clarifying the difference (e.g., more than 40 percent of all violent crime arrests involve “youth” under age 25, but just 14 percent involve people under age 18, and even fewer involve young people legally defined as “juveniles”)

13. contrast the per capita arrest rates for juveniles versus “adults” without clarifying that the denominator for adults includes a lot of retirees and people in nursing homes

14. even worse, report the juvenile arrest rate using a population denominator that has been truncated to exclude very young children (e.g., ages 10-17) without also truncating the older age range of adults

15. contrast the crime rate of one city against another without considering how those cities might be very different (i.e., more or less urban, rural, dense, diverse, developed)

16. contrast the crime rate of one city versus another without at least reading the FBI warning about cross-city comparisons

17. believe that numbers about “recidivism” are valid and meaningful without additional scrutiny

18. accept on faith someone’s claims about the recidivism numbers of their program or their jurisdiction

19. or forget to ask, “and how are you defining recidivism, exactly?”