The horrific aftermath of mass shootings, community gun violence and carjackings have fueled a false impression that youth crime is spiking in this country and endangering critical justice reforms, America’s top juvenile justice official said in a public address today.
Liz Ryan, the recently appointed administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said that new national data “tell us a different story about violent offenses committed by young people under the age of 18.”
A policy brief released by her agency Tuesday found that in 2020, there was scarce evidence of an uptick in violent juvenile crime. According to the federal data, offenses such as murder, robbery and aggravated assault in fact tumbled to an all-time low the first year of the pandemic, representing half the number of those crimes committed a decade ago. And between 2019 and 2020, arrests plummeted by 24% — a rate nearly 5 times greater than the decline among adults.
“To help counter the narrative of a youth-led crime wave, it’s important that we look at the data, we put these incidents in context and that we highlight all of the programs and policies that have kept young people out of the juvenile justice system,” Ryan said. “That’s where we should be investing our time and our resources.”
Ryan’s public comments were delivered during a webinar put on by The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group seeking “effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2020 numbers are the most recent data available — there is some delay in when crime data is compiled and reported on a national scale. But the 2020 statistics are considered notable, and timely.
“An enduring myth about community gun violence is that it is primarily driven by youths under 18,” criminal justice researcher Thomas Abt noted in a tweet Wednesday. Referencing the new federal data, he added: “Again and again, when we carefully analyze who the shooters are in a given city, we find that most are in their twenties, or even thirties.”
Ryan was named as the nation’s top juvenile justice official in May. She’s noteworthy in her post. The former longtime advocate for decreasing youth incarceration has charted a new course for the agency that oversees local and state juvenile justice systems.
At a conference in May, Ryan identified three focus areas for her office: treating children as children; serving children at home, in their communities and with their families; and opening opportunities for youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Her comments to attendees gathered by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice also called for creativity in how the country deals with young people who commit crimes.
“The only way to truly reform our juvenile justice system is to reimagine it,” she said. “We must literally close the doors on youth prisons to open the doors for better alternatives — alternatives that are more effective, that have a greater return on investment, and are safer.”
Still, Ryan said she remains concerned with public perception that there is currently an uptick in youth crime, impressions that could imperil her goals and bipartisan juvenile justice reforms enacted over the past decade. Those efforts include new laws across the country that have raised the age of criminal responsibility and limited the number of kids who are tried and punished as adults.
Earlier this year, law enforcement groups and even New York City Mayor Eric Adams campaigned to roll back some of the state’s signature Raise the Age reforms that allow youth under age 18 to be prosecuted in juvenile court. An increase in carjackings committed by youth in 2020 prompted Gov. Ned Lamont (D) of Connecticut to sign a bipartisan bill increasing penalties on young people in juvenile court. And Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is fighting to place youth at the notorious Angola prison.
“As we hear about anecdotal, perceived or even real spikes in youth crime, that doesn’t justify rolling back all of the field’s advances in juvenile justice reform,” Ryan said in her comments today.
The recent report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and other crime analyses are limited to data from 2020, when COVID-19 shuttered schools and some states imposed sweeping stay-at-home orders that could have affected youth behavior. Subsequent crime data on a national scale is not yet available, though data in New York and California suggest that youth arrests continued on a downward slide in 2021.
The Sentencing Project Senior Research Fellow Dick Mendel acknowledged that youth crime could have surged in 2021, when accounts about carjacking and increased gun homicides led daily newscasts and headlines.
But even if that is true, he added, recent juvenile justice reforms should not be scaled back.
“A temporary rise in adolescent law-breaking during the pandemic would not be surprising given the trauma and disruption that young people have experienced,” Mendel said at today’s webinar. But he cautioned: “That problem cannot be solved with harsher punishments in the court system.”
Other participants in the The Sentencing Project forum said the impact of a perceived uptick in youth crime has already begun to influence policymakers and elected officials afraid of being described as soft on crime. Andre Simms, lead youth organizer with the Philadelphia-based Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, said he has witnessed media accounts influencing a judge’s decision about whether to detain a young person accused of a crime.
“I’m really concerned right now with the conversations and the rhetoric that we’re hearing because it’s having an effect,” he said, “and it’s creeping its way into courtrooms.”