Easily Overstated

Evans, Douglas N., Gina Moreno, Kevin T. Wolff and Jeffrey A. Butts (2020). Easily Overstated: Estimating the Relationship Between State Justice Policy Environments and Falling Rates of Youth Confinement. Final report of research project 2017-JF-FX-0064, U.S. Department of Justice. New York, NY: Research and Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Researchers used state-level data on youth justice policies and practices to explore the association between state policy environments and recent changes in the use of residential placements for adjudicated youth (i.e., confinement). The study assigned a score to each of the 50 states based on the extent to which their youth justice policy environments could be considered “progressive” as opposed to punitive or regressive. Using data from the National Center for Juvenile Justice’s compendium of justice system characteristics, “Juvenile Justice, Geography, Policy, Practice & Statistics” (JJGPS), the research team created an index that accounts for 16 policies that are more or less progressive in terms of rehabilitative intent, compatibility with developmental science, focus on the use of “least restrictive” settings, and consistency with civil liberties and the need for balanced restraint on the powers of government to ensure public safety. The maximum score was 16, with higher scores reflecting more progressive policy environments. Researchers then used a series of latent growth curve analyses to estimate associations between this index and state confinement rates calculated with data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s “Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement” (CJRP). Covariates included annual per capita income data for each state, unemployment rates, political ideology scores, and lagged variables for youth confinement rates and violent crime arrest rates. Results of the study indicated little evidence of a relationship between state policy environments and changes in youth confinement rates between 1997 and 2015. Youth confinement declined significantly across the country (modeled by a function of time), but states with more progressive policy environments did not demonstrate significantly steeper declines. Of course, the 16 JJGPS indicators provide an incomplete measure of state policy environments and the study lacks any data about local policies and practices. Unfortunately, more complete data are not available for national analyses. Until more useful data are available, researchers will be unable to explain exactly how youth justice policies did or did not contribute to falling rates of youth confinement across the United States.