Policymakers, advocates, and even some researchers claim that youth confinement rates across the United States dropped in recent years due to changes in policy and practice. Such claims remain unproven, but voters and elected officials are inclined to accept them as factual because they are offered by reputable agencies and repeated in news media sources. Without reliable evidence, however, the notion that state-level youth confinement rates fall primarily in response to progressive policy reforms is merely appealing rhetoric.
But while the numbers show New York City is shifting gears on criminal justice reform, much harder is to establish, the experts said, is whether new policies are causing the drop in crime or whether they are a consequence of it…. Crime numbers have been decreasing for a long time nationwide, and even worldwide, said Jeffrey Butts, a professor who leads the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He has researched the juvenile justice system since the late 1980s.
Jurisdictions that make extensive use of parole tend to have higher recidivism rates because more of their returning citizens are under the surveillance of parole officers and subject to onerous parole conditions that, if violated, could send them back to prison. “Comparing virtually any group of states or cities with simple, aggregate recidivism figures is inherently misleading and should constitute statistical malpractice,” according to criminologists Jeffrey A. Butts and Vincent Schiraldi.
“Nothing in the governor’s plan ensures that Wisconsin will have an effective approach to youth justice,” cautioned Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “Poor implementation and ineffective management can ruin the best of plans.”
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.
The Research and Evaluation Center investigated the feasibility, implementation, and impact of a youth justice realignment effort in New York State. Known as Close to Home, the initiative diverted young offenders from state facilities and shifted interventions to community-based programs under the direct or indirect management of local government. Over the past two decades, realignment has attracted growing attention in New York and elsewhere due to crowded facilities, strained budgets, and the persistent failure of the justice system to reduce recidivism.
Jeffrey Butts, a justice scholar at John Jay College who has worked with the city on analyzing its juvenile capacity needs, notes that a city-administered system could create new financial incentives to keep kids out of lockups altogether, since incarceration is many times more expensive than alternative programs that provide community-based supervision alongside services like family counseling and job training. “If you have $100 to spend and you can either use that money to put one kid in a facility or work with three or four kids in the community, you’ll find that the impulse to put kids in secure facilities goes way down,” says Butts.
Building a Juvenile Justice System for the Future. Presented to the Michigan Family Impact Seminar, Michigan State Capitol.
While many states have refashioned their policies, some continue to lock up teenagers despite declining violent crime rates. An analysis of the most recent federal data by the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that only 1 in 20 arrests of young people are for serious, violent crimes like murder, rape or aggravated assault. About 80 percent of those taken in state custody are locked up for drug offenses, misdemeanors or property crimes.