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Juvenile Incarceration Rates Are Down; Racial Disparities Rise


Fewer young people are being locked up than in the past. In fact, the number of juvenile offenders behind bars in the U.S. has hit record lows. That comes amid broader debate over just how many Americans of all ages end up in prison. But if the total number of juveniles in custody is dropping, the drop is not the same for everybody. The system is giving harsher penalties to minorities and to girls. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: About 60,000 juveniles are incarcerated across the country. Experts say two-thirds of them are locked up for minor offenses.

MARC SCHINDLER: For things like running away from home, failing to go to school and other types of what has been referred to as incorrigible behavior.

JOHNSON: Marc Schindler runs the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.

SCHINDLER: They have not exhibited behavior that would be a danger to the public. What they have done is they have made a judge upset (laughter) 'cause they have not followed the judge's directive. That shouldn't be a reason to lock someone up.

JOHNSON: But when it comes to black and Hispanic kids, small-time issues have become a big-time point of entry into the correction system. Liz Ryan works to reduce youth incarceration rates at Youth First Initiative. She says the system is the problem.

LIZ RYAN: White youth and youth of color commit crime at roughly the same rates. It's the justice system that responds much more punitively and harshly to youth of color than it does to white youth.

JOHNSON: So while the overall incarceration rate has fallen by more than 40 percent over the past 10 years, Ryan says racial disparities involving who gets locked up have risen dramatically.

RYAN: There's been a federal requirement in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act for two decades now that has required states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. And we've seen very little progress in this area. And actually, this latest news shows us that it's even worse than we thought.

JOHNSON: More girls are also being incarcerated. Many of them are girls who have mental health problems or have experienced violence in their homes. Elizabeth Cauffman of the University of California at Irvine has studied young offenders for years. She says there's a reason why girls are turning up in the system.

ELIZABETH CAUFFMAN: And it's not because girls are becoming more violent. I think that's a misnomer in the field that somehow girls are becoming more dangerous or more reckless. In reality, it's really a function - that the way in which we charge crimes now - we're criminalizing adolescents in general. And we're criminalizing girls in particular.

JOHNSON: Cauffman says one of the best predictors for boys escaping a pattern of crime is finding a steady romantic partner. But for girls, she says, the situation is more complicated, especially when it's a bad romance.

CAUFFMAN: We named it after Lady Gaga's song because one of the things we saw was these romantic relationships may not be good for girls. And so these bad romances can actually lead to bad outcomes.

JOHNSON: After studying more than a thousand young people for seven years, Cauffman says she's come to the same conclusion as many parents of teenagers.

CAUFFMAN: One of the best predictors of stopping crime is developing more impulse control, being able to think long-term, being able to resist peer influences. If you actually just let kids grow up, most kids will, what we call, age out of crime.

JOHNSON: And keeping them from lockup while still underage is a big boost in that direction. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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