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.