Since the start of the pandemic, a colossal wave of reporting on youth violence has given the impression that an alarming spree of violent crime is underway, led by young people. Many “tough on crime” law enforcement officials and politicians have clung to this narrative to advance an antiquated agenda in which the only perceived solution to teen crime is tougher punishment.
I have studied the data extensively, and this account is false. We have no evidence that youth crime has increased during the pandemic, as a recent report I authored shows. And whatever the short-term trends in juvenile delinquency, a return to the failed punitive strategies of the past would do more harm than good.
Of course, we must take vigilant action to minimize crime – and in particular to address a disturbing increase in murder and gun violence since 2019. In particular, we must pass common sense gun laws to limiting access to deadly assault weapons like those used in the recent tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.
But after all the hardships young Americans have experienced during the pandemic, it would be unwise to reinstate outdated and overly punitive responses to teenage delinquency that have historically proven to be both racially inequitable and ineffective. Instead, we should invest our resources in strategies that work.
Recent calls for tougher sentences for teens appear to be based on the media-fueled presumption that youth violence is on the rise across the country. But over the past two decades, the share of crimes committed by people under the age of 18 has halved, from 15% of all arrests to 7%. From 1994 to 2019, the youth arrest rate for all serious violent crimes fell by 72% – far more than for any adult cohort.
From 2019 to 2020, the share of youth in total offenses continued to decline, and the total number of serious violent offenses committed by youth actually decreased.
Much of the recent media attention on youth crime has focused on carjackings, driven by a sharp increase reported in several cities and the fact that young people make up a significant portion of carjacking arrests. But since the police only make arrests in 10-15% of carjacking cases, there is no reliable data on the age profile of those arrested. And we don’t know if the local carjacking spikes reflect a national trend, because the federal government doesn’t publish data on carjackings. Federal data, however, shows that the total number of youth robberies — of which carjackings are a subcategory — fell in 2020.
At this time, national youth crime data from 2021 or 2022 is still not available. We may finally see that rates of juvenile delinquency have increased during the pandemic – at least in some crime categories. But even if that were to happen, it would not justify scaling back recent juvenile justice reforms or adopting tough strategies against young people.
Young people have experienced unprecedented disruption and trauma during the pandemic. Anxiety disorders, depression and self-harm among adolescents are on the rise. It would therefore come as no surprise – or an indictment of current court policies – if delinquency also increased.
Research clearly shows that punitive practices such as treating minors like adults in court, increasing incarceration, and criminalizing common adolescent misbehavior will do nothing to stop crime. Rather, these knee-jerk responses all increase delinquency, worsen youth outcomes, exacerbate racial disparities, and compromise public safety.
Fortunately, we have strong evidence that many other strategies do reduce teen crime.
We can close the school-to-jail pipeline by hiring counselors instead of police in schools and addressing student misbehavior with restorative justice or crisis mental health interventions instead of suspensions, expulsions and arrests . We can also place youth charged with less serious offenses in restorative justice and other community-run diversion programs instead of trying their cases in juvenile court, which often does more harm than good.
Finally, we can keep the vast majority of young people at home and in school waiting for their court date rather than locking them up in holding cells. And for youth convicted of criminal offences, we can provide evidence-based interventions and positive development opportunities for functioning youth, rather than confining them to institutions with huge racial disparities and dismal backgrounds. failures and abuses.
In recent years, justice systems across the country have gradually expanded these solutions. We cannot let the combination of misleading media coverage and political expediency undermine the encouraging bipartisan cooperation that has fueled recent reforms.
It’s time to stop demonizing young people and start delivering solutions that actually keep us safe and help our young people thrive.
Richard Mendel is Senior Youth Justice Research Fellow at The Sentencing Project, where he conducts research and writes reports to advance reform of our nation’s youth justice systems.