ACLU Fact Sheet on the Juvenile Justice System

A movement has taken hold nationally to undermine the juvenile justice system, and erase any distinction between young offenders and adult criminals. In the past two years, almost all 50 states have overhauled their juvenile justice laws, allowing more youths to be tried as adults and scrapping long-time protections to help rehabilitate delinquent kids and prevent future crimes.

On the federal level, members of Congress have proposed legislation designed to gut crime prevention programs and use the expiration of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 this September as an opportunity to dismantle the preventive and rehabilitative goals of the nation's juvenile justice system.

The juvenile justice system has its roots in the beginning of the century, when the mistreatment of juveniles became a focus of the Progressive Movement. By 1925, nearly every state had adopted laws providing for separate juvenile proceedings that centered on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than retribution and punishment.

Now federal and state lawmakers are rushing to turn the juvenile justice system completely upside down. If this backward trend isn't halted, the consequences will be disastrous -- not only for an entire generation of our nation's youth who will be condemned to prison, but for all of us who will be left with a more violent society.

The current debate over juvenile crime is being dominated by two voices: elected officials seizing on quick-fix solutions, and a media more intent on reporting violent crimes than successful prevention efforts. Below are some little-known, but basic facts on juvenile crime:

What Ever Happened to Prevention?

Crime prevention programs work and are cost-effective. They have been shown to reduce crime substantially when compared to imprisonment after crimes have been committed.

  • The most comprehensive study done in this area recently concluded that crime prevention costs less than imprisonment. Early intervention programs that try to steer young people from wrongdoing -- modest graduation incentives, for example, or intense delinquent supervision -- can prevent as much as 250 crimes per $1 million spent. In contrast, the report said investing the same amount in prisons would prevent only 60 crimes a year. (Greenwood, Peter, et al., Diverting Children from a Life of Crime, Measuring Costs and Benefits, RAND Corporation, (1996)). 
  • Dozens of crime prevention programs across the country have been held up as successful models. Recently, Connecticut commissioned the first state-wide evaluation of its alternative to sentencing program for juveniles. The report concluded that young offenders sentenced to alternative programs have a significantly lower rate of rearrest than juveniles sentenced to adult correctional facilities. (Longitudinal Study: Alternatives to Incarceration Sentencing Evaluation, Year 2, Full Report, State of Connecticut, Judicial Branch, at 84, 89-91 (April 1996)).

Yet, we are spending more and more on corrections, and less on prevention efforts:

  • Both California and Florida currently spend more on corrections than they spend on higher education. Other states are not far behind. 
  • Average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for one year is between $35,000 to $64,000. In contrast, the current cost of Head Start's intervention program is $4,300 per child a year, and the annual tuition cost of attending Harvard is under $30,000 per student. 
  • The combined local, state and federal budget to maintain the prison population was $24.9 billion in 1990 and reportedly reached $31.2 billion in 1992. The entire budget for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which coordinates the Federal response to juvenile crime, is $144 million. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1990; "As Spending Soars, So Do the Profits," USA Today, Dec. 13, 1994).

"Lock Em Up" Will Backfire

The most recent studies demonstrate that putting young offenders in adult prisons leads to more crime, higher prison costs, and increased violence.

  • One study, comparing New York and New Jersey juvenile offenders, shows that the rearrest rate for children sentenced in juvenile court was 29% lower than the rearrest rate for juveniles sentenced in the adult criminal court. (Jeffrey Fagan, The Comparative Advantage of Juvenile Versus Criminal Court Sanctions on Recidivism Among Adolescent Felony Offenders 1, 21, 27 (1996) (unpublished manuscript on file with the ACLU). 
  • A recent Florida study compared the recidivism rate of juveniles who were transferred to criminal court versus those who were retained in the juvenile system, and concluded that juveniles who were transferred recidivated at a higher rate than the non-transfer group. Furthermore, the rate of re-offending in the transfer group was significantly higher than the non-transfer group, as was the likelihood that the transfer group would commit subsequent felony offenses. (Donna M. Bishop et al., The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does It Make a Difference?, 42 Crime and Delinq. 171, 183 (1996).

Incarcerating youth offenders in adult prisons also places juveniles in real danger.

  • Children in adult institutions are 500% more likely to be sexually assaulted, 200% more likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon than juveniles confined in a juvenile facility. (Jeffrey Fagan et al., Youth in Prisons and Training Schools: Perceptions and Consequences of the Treatment-Custody Dichotomy, 40 Juv. & Fam. Ct. J. 1 (1989); Eisikovitz & Baizerman, Doin' Time: Violent Youth in a Juvenile Facility and in an Adult Prison, 6 J. Offender Counseling, Services & Rehabilitation 5 (1983).

Defusing the Myth of the "Ticking Teenage Time Bomb"

Predictions on juvenile crime are greatly exaggerated. While some headlines have irresponsibly suggested that a "ticking time bomb" of so-called "superpredator children" is waiting to explode, the studies show it is more a "cyclical time bulge."

  • Crime level indicators show that the male "at risk" population (those ages 15-24) will rise over the next decade, but the levels are far from an "explosion." In fact, the levels are lower than those reached in 1980, when the "at risk" population last peaked. (Austin & Cohen, Why are Crime Rates Declining An NCCD Briefing Report, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, March 1994).  
  • From 1982 to 1992, the percentage of young people arrested for violent crimes increased by less than half of one percent. (Synder & Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1996 Update on Violence, OJJDP, Justice Department (Aug. 1995)).

The public also holds greatly inflated perceptions about the prevalence and severity of juvenile crime.

  • Only 6% of juveniles were arrested in 1994, the majority of whom only come in contact with the juvenile justice system once. And the overwhelming majority of those arrests have nothing to do with violence. (Synder & Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report, OJJDP, Justice Dept. (Aug. 1995)).  
  • Contrary to public perception, the percentage of violent crimes committed by juveniles is low. According to one estimate, only 13% of violent crimes are committed by young people. (Gallup Poll Monthly, Sept. 1994)
  • A recent government survey shows that less than half of one percent of juveniles commit the most serious violent crimes, rape and murder. In fact murders comprised of less than two-tenths of 1% of all juvenile arrests. ("Crime Time Bomb," U.S. News & World Report, March 25, 1996; Synder & Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1996 Update on Violence, OJJDP, Justice Department (Aug. 1995).

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