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Research Undermines Narrative of Youth-Led Crime Wave


Tuesday, July 5, 2022   

Crime rates among young people have dropped dramatically in recent decades - despite media coverage that points to a supposed "crime wave" led by youth.

That's the finding in a recent report from The Sentencing Project, which shows the proportion of overall arrests of kids under 18 was cut in half between 2000 and 2019.

Karen Pillar director of policy and advocacy at TeamChild, a legal advocacy group for youth in Washington state. She said locking kids up in the past hasn't worked - and can even have the opposite effect on crime in this age group.

"The truth, which I think we know, is if we have this very punitive response, we're just going to make this one bad act sort of exacerbated, right?" said Pillar. "You might lose your housing, you might not be employable down the road, you might drop out of school; you're going to meet a whole bunch of other young people who are struggling."

Pillar said the narrative that young people are dangerous is entrenched in American culture and is harmful to youth of color in particular.

Richard Mendel is a senior research fellow at The Sentencing Project and authored the report. He said people should be skeptical of pushing for more punitive measures by those who assume kids get into more trouble when they have more free time, as in the pandemic lockdowns.

"This is not a moment to be panicking about youth crime," said Mendel, "especially if that panic is going to lead us to embrace solutions that we know that the evidence shows do not work."

Pillar said in Washington, the State Legislature has made some progress moving away from relying so heavily on incarceration.

This past session, she said lawmakers increased the number counselors, mental health professionals and nurses in schools, partly in response to the pandemic.

"The counter to this notion - that 'young people have bad behaviors, and so we need to increase the punitive response system,'" said Pillar, "is to say that young people have needs, and we need to increase the teams of people available to support them in their needs."

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