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Locking up young offenders isn’t the key to reducing crime rates. Trends show there are more humane options.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The number of young people confined in juvenile and adult institutions across the nation hit a 35-year low in 2010, and Virginia gets credit for being in front of this promising trend.
The number of incarcerated juveniles in the commonwealth dropped from 2,880 in 1997 to 1,860 in 2010, according to a recent analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Virginia is one of 44 states that have worked to reduce national youth confinements from 108,000 in 1995 to 71,000.
Law-and-order legislators should take note that there has been no corresponding uptick in juvenile offenses. Crime rates are down, building on research showing that recidivism is more prevalent among youth who have spent time behind bars, even in juvenile facilities.
There are clearly some young people who have committed crimes so serious they must be incarcerated to guarantee public safety. But a majority of those confined today in Virginia and the United States don’t fit into that category. Nationally, only a quarter of juveniles who have been locked up are serving time for violent offenses like homicide, robbery or sexual assault. Forty percent are being punished for probation violations such as drug possession, minor property offenses, possession of alcohol and truancy.
In Virginia, more than half of juvenile commitments last year were due to misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, according to Kate Duvall, an attorney with JustChildren, a program of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center. More than half of those offenders have diagnosed mental health disorders.
Much of the progress in the commonwealth is attributed to collaborations between local social services agencies and court officials. There is still room for improvement with leadership at the state level. Virginia should consider adopting policies similar to those in Alabama, California and Texas that prohibit juvenile incarcerations for minor offenses. More emphasis should be placed on cost-effective, community-based alternatives to incarceration and small treatment-oriented facilities for those who cannot live at home.
Despite progress in recent years, the United States still incarcerates a larger percentage of its young people than any developed country. The nation and the commonwealth have adequate evidence to show that compassion can go hand-in-hand with safer communities and more efficient investment of taxpayer dollars. Those are goals worth embracing.
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