Blog: Crime

What’s in a Number? Age Considerations in Justice Decisions

Research shows that adolescents have a high propensity for engaging in risk taking activities given the significant changes in neurology, biology, and other developmental issues (e.g., social; cultural; familial) they experience. Specifically related to decision-making, science shows the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain is underdeveloped until a young person is well into their 20’s.  With these findings in mind, how should this influence the way we think about key juvenile justice policies and practices like the age of juvenile jurisdiction?

It’s Not the Kids that are Bad, It's the Policies

Disappointingly, there seems to be widely-held perception that the youth of today behave worse than any generation of kids before them. A fair amount of research has been dedicated to showing this generation of kids doesn’t behave any more badly than previous generations, but instead it is public perception that casts them as wild and out of control. In the 1990s, this led to a wide array of policies designed to punish youth to the maximum, including laws that transfer youth to adult court, zero tolerance policies that put police in schools, and an overall reliance on confinement. The result was more than 100,000 youth committed to the juvenile justice system in the late 1990s.
But, over the last five years or so, the number of youth in detention or committed to a facility in the juvenile justice system has been decreasing. In 2010 the numbers reached a new low. (For a little background: detention is when youth are held after they are arrested, but before adjudication or determination of guilt or innocence. Youth are committed after there has been a determination of guilt. Typically, youth who are committed are under the jurisdiction of the state.) New counts from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) are the first updated since 2007 and show that there is an overall decrease in the reliance on confinement for youth:

Does more "youth on the streets" mean more crime?

With a growing youth and immigrant population, one could expect an increase in local crime rates. However, this is often not true. In this short video, CJCJ senior research fellow Mike Males explains why California's crime rate is going down (even with increasing diversity and a large youth population) and why he is optimistic for the future of the golden state's juvenile justice system.

In a recently release policy brief, Dr. Males goes into more detail on the actual numbers of incarcerated youth in California: 

Are teen curfews necessary?

Recently, the Oakland City Council deferred voting on a proposed juvenile curfew, titled the "Juvenile Protection Act." Is it a good idea to enact such curfews, and what is their effect on crime?
Some evidence, including this paper by Patrick Kline, suggest that youth curfews overall are effective in reducing crime for the juveniles below curfew age, but have no spillover effects above the curfew age. The study's population was that of cities with a 1990 population greater than 180,000, and compared cities with municipal codes that included youth curfews. The focus was on serious felonies, as other offenses could be attributed to police behavior rather than to youth criminality. The arrest data, he says, 

suggest that being subject to a curfew reduces the number of violent and property crimes committed by juveniles below the curfew age by approximately 10% in the year after enactment, with the effects intensifying substantially in subsequent years for violent crimes.
The magnitude of any biases in the estimates due to spillover effects is difficult to assess. The data do not provide evidence of any spillovers, though given the imprecision of the estimates we also cannot reject modest sized effects. It does seem safe to say that there are probably not any large spillover effects, meaning that curfews do not seem to reduce crime in general, but rather only for the targeted age-groups. This suggests that cities designing curfew legislation should choose the statutory curfew age carefully according to which age-groups are in greatest need of intervention.

However, for Oakland and San Francisco specifically, there are reasons to be skeptical. A recent piece by Mike Males in the San Francisco Chronicle was a good reminder of the fact that the U.S. seems to be the only country where its citizens, "can shop happily only when everyone under 18 is under house arrest. Not even in London during recent riots - and certainly not in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto or other major cities - do police forcibly sweep young people off the streets."