A Lack of Commitment

A drastic decline in the use of state-run facilities has fueled an overall decrease in the juvenile detention and commitment of youth and young adults, with nine states in particular driving the numbers down.

Just under 71,000 juvenile offenders below the age of 21 were held in detention centers, residential programs and secure confinement facilities in 2010, which is down from about 105,000 in 1997, according to a policy brief issued today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Although we still lead the industrialized world in the rate at which we lock up young people, the youth confinement rate in the United States is rapidly declining,” said the report, Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States.

“This decline has not led to a surge in juvenile crime,” the report said. “On the contrary, crime has fallen sharply even as juvenile justice systems have locked up fewer delinquent youth.”

The number of juvenile offenders in state-run, public facilities was basically halved from 1997 to 2010, from 40,678 to 20,473. That accounts for nearly 60 percent of the overall decline in overall confinement reported by Casey.

The majority of the decline in state facility use occurred in nine states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Michigan. Each of those states had more than one thousand juveniles committed to state facilities in 1997, except for Michigan, which had 972.

Those states saw their state facility populations drop to a collective 7,635 in 2010, down from 22,215 in 1997. The nine states account for 72 percent of the decline in state facility commitments.

California (7,128 in 1997 down to 1,221) and Texas (3,996 to 1,839) saw the greatest numerical decline. Both states passed legislation in 2007 that shielded most juvenile offenders from state incarceration, in the wake of federal lawsuits over the conditions of state facilities and treatment of their wards.

The laws left more decision-making on commitment to counties. Despite less access to state options, commitments to local and private facilities declined in both states.

Another of the nine states, Georgia, has agreed to be an initial site in the Casey Foundation’s new initiative to halve the number of incarcerated juveniles in the country.

The initiative is an extension of Casey’s 21-year-old Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which until recently focused on reducing system reliance on pre-adjudication detention.

The policy brief uses figures drawn from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (CJRP), a biannual report produced by the National Center on Juvenile Justice for the Justice Department.

A central reason for the commitment decline is an even higher dip in juvenile arrests, said Melissa Sickmund, executive director of the National Center of Juvenile Justice, which produced the numbers used in the Casey brief.

“Fewer kids are coming into the system,” she said. “They just have fewer kids coming in the front door.”

Still, the dwindling need for commitment beds has led some systems to close entire facilities. After the data collection period for these numbers ended in 2010, Sickmund said, an additional 99 facilities closed in the next eight months.

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