Are we reducing crime by limiting the use of incarceration?

When casual readers of the news media search for stories about juvenile crime and justice today, they find a lot of good news. Other than the perennial media coverage of individual crimes and victimization, an online search about juvenile justice today generates dozens of stories about states uncovering abuses in their youth corrections systems, reducing their rates of juvenile incarceration and increasing their reliance on community-based programs for young offenders.
Many of these stories refer to the ongoing decline in crime and violence as possible proof that these changes in policy and practice are improving public safety. But, a prudent reader will stop to ask about the direction of causality in these explanations. Are we reducing crime by limiting the use of incarceration, or is incarceration down because crime is down? The question is more than a topic for academic study. We need to consider our answer carefully if we hope to sustain these recent improvements over the long term.
The number of juvenile offenders being held in secure correctional institutions has been falling nationwide. Advocates in the juvenile justice field welcome this reform because reductions in the use of secure confinement allow state and local jurisdictions to intervene with young offenders in their own homes and communities, which is less costly and can be more effective than incarceration in reducing recidivism and preventing crime.
My colleague Douglas Evans and I recently reviewed the most prominent juvenile correctional reform models from the past 40 years, and we concluded that some models of reform were likely to be more sustainable than others. Specifically, we recommended the "realignment" approach now being implemented in California and those established in Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan since 2000.

Some of the reform models described in the report are well known to juvenile justice audiences, including RECLAIM Ohio and Redeploy Illinois. They created financial incentives for state and local officials to maintain an effective balance in their juvenile justice system so that secure confinement is used only for the most serious cases and does not consume a disproportionate share of budgets. In our report, we acknowledged that the financial reinvestment approach to reform appears to have been successful in these jurisdictions, but we cautioned that such reforms might be more easily reversed if conditions change.
What happens if and when violent crime begins to climb in the future? Have we really changed our collective thinking about youth crime? If we believe that these youth justice reforms are critical for public safety and for public budgets, shouldn't we focus on reforms that are not easily undone? In our opinion, reforms grounded in structural change are likely to be more durable than those that depend on the changing views of elected officials or the vicissitudes of budget pressure.

Jeffrey A. Butts is director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and senior research advisor at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. Since 1991, he has managed more than $10 million of research and evaluation projects focused on youth justice programs and policy. Previously, he was a research fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago and director of the Program on Youth Justice at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. He began his career as a drug and alcohol counselor with the juvenile court in Eugene, Oregon.

Updated: February 08 2018