Amid news stories that raise the specter of increasing juvenile
crime, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that crime rates
overall, particularly for violent crimes, are still near 30-year
lows. The cries of alarm are reminiscent of those heard in the early
1990s, when a rise in violent juvenile crime and myths of
superpredators helped transform a system that had been focused on
individualized treatment and rehabilitation for nearly a century
into one that was increasingly harsh and punitive.
The impact of these policies began to hit home. Thousands of
adolescents, locked up during a critical period of development,
returned to their communities without the skills or support to lead
productive lives. A disproportionately large number of them were
young minorities. The cost of "get tough" policies was measured not
only in escalating budgets of prisons and detention centers and
rising recidivism rates, but also in reduced public safety and the
loss of human potential.
Over the past decade, groundbreaking research on adolescent
development and on what works to help young people steer clear of
crime has brought about more rational and effective policies.
Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington were among the
first to incorporate this new knowledge in reshaping our juvenile
Now, in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur
Foundation's Models for Change initiative, we are working to further
improve juvenile justice policy and practice across the country.
However, these efforts could be at risk if public opinion becomes
unnecessarily inflamed again.
Illinois launched the nation's first juvenile justice system more
than a century ago. But, like many other states in the 1990s, it
turned away from its historic rehabilitative mission, transferring a
growing number of youths to adult court. The result was a sharp rise
in recidivism rates and a growing racial disparity in incarceration
Illinois is now renewing its commitment to juvenile justice by
enacting a new law to separate the juvenile and adult systems to
better protect young people. Redeploy Illinois, a model
demonstration in four counties, provides incentives to place
nonviolent juvenile offenders in community-based programs. As a
result of this program, Illinois has reduced commitments of
nonviolent juveniles by 44 percent at its pilot sites since 2004.
In the 1990s, Louisiana had the highest juvenile incarceration
rate in the nation and some of the worst juvenile prisons. …