Pushing back against what it describes as a “flurry of alarming news coverage and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians,” the Sentencing Project released a brief today arguing that youth violence did not spike during the pandemic.
Serious violent offenses attributed to youth decreased during the first year of the pandemic, the brief says, citing data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System that showed 88,461 such incidents in 2019 and 86,336 in 2020. And while the same system shows the number of homicides committed by youth increased in 2020 — part of an overall homicide increase of 30% that year — the share of homicides committed by youth declined.
The brief also takes on the criminal act that has been most closely associated with a rise in youth violence since the pandemic: carjacking, an offense that has increased substantially in several cities around the country. The Sentencing Project suggests that the association between carjacking and youth has been greatly exaggerated.
Two arguments the brief makes in support of that assertion: First, that federal crime data does not tease out carjacking from other robbery offenses, it is difficult to identify any clear trends in its occurrence. Second, citing research by Stephanie Kollman, policy director at Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center, it argues that while youth are arrested for carjacking at a high rate, the vast majority of carjackings go unsolved, without arrests made.
“Police are most likely to solve cases where offenders fail to plan carefully, commit crimes in large groups, and lack strong driving skills, Kollmann has explained, all hallmarks of youth,” the brief said. Still, it concedes, “other experts argue that young people likely are responsible for a substantial share of carjacking offenses.”
The paper was prompted in large part by the recent push by some legislators to roll back recent progressive reforms of juvenile justice. In New York and Louisiana, for example, measures have been considered that could steer more older teens, particularly ones accused of gun-related or violent crimes, into the adult court system.
Whether or not more data emerges showing an uptick in violent youth crime, the brief argues, it would be counterproductive to react to that information with get-tough policies and increased incarceration.
“There is now overwhelming evidence that punitive responses in the youth justice system don’t work,” the brief said. “Transfer to adult court, heavy reliance on detention and confinement, and criminalization of routine adolescent misbehavior in school all tend to heighten delinquency, worsen youth outcomes and undermine public safety.”