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Commentary: 1990s-style tough-on-crime approach wrong for juvenile justice

Published May 31, 2024

By Susan Vivian Mangold

The Baltimore Banner

Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner

Reforms needed to move away from costly approaches that don’t address root causes of youth crime.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore has signed legislation that follows other states’ backward march to reinstate failed policies of the past. These “tough-on-crime” laws aimed at children as young as 10 will not make us safer and will cost an exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars. These laws may play well in headlines and political speeches, but they will not make our communities safer and will fall most heavily on Black and brown children who are from low-income families. We need to be serious about safety and not play politics with our communities and our children.

These new laws echo actions of the 1990s. While some crime has risen since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, crime overall is far below the levels of the 1990s and continued to drop as laws were reformed to deal with young offenders in effective ways. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that “for persons ages 12 to 17, the violent victimization rate declined 85%, from 184.8 per 1,000 in 1993 to 27.4 per 1,000 in 2022.”

Despite a brief uptick for some offenses by teens in the years immediately following COVID lockdowns, recent data shows that the downward trend continues. Moreover, research shows that legal system interaction imposes lasting harm on young people, including adversely affecting mental and physical health and educational and employment opportunities.

Bringing more children into the legal system and keeping them there longer might seem like an expedient response, but it is not effective and makes us less safe.

The price tag for incarcerating juveniles varies across the country but costs taxpayers an average of more than $500 per juvenile per day. We have the experience and evidence to hold young people responsible for their actions without defaulting to failed policies. If we want to be serious about safety, we have to learn from our policy mistakes of the 1990s and not return to them in 2024.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Supreme Court used research and common sense to conclude that teens make decisions differently than adults and consequently are less blameworthy for their criminal conduct. Research has demonstrated teenagers are less able to evaluate the consequences of their conduct while at the same time are more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than adults.

The court struck down the death penalty for individuals younger than 18 in 2005 and quickly followed with a series of decisions in which it ruled that our criminal laws must take account of the developmental differences between youths and adults. With this scientific knowledge in mind, states passed reforms to end the harshest sentences, increase opportunities for diversion and diminish the use of adult court for teens. Crime continued to sharply decline.

Despite this, some legislatures are passing laws that are throwbacks to the 1990s — expanding rather than constricting the jurisdiction of adult criminal court over young teens, enhancing rather than diminishing punishment for probation violations and other nonviolent actions, and extending rather than limiting sentences for young people.

In other states, sensible legislation to reform the juvenile justice system has stalled amid election-year politics after years of bipartisan drafting. In Pennsylvania, a bipartisan task force with representatives from every branch of government, appointed by the governor and supported by philanthropy, developed dozens of recommendations for effective juvenile justice reform. Yet, somehow the legislation to enact these reforms cannot move forward for a vote.

Leaders with experience in the justice system see a different pathway to safety. They advocate for living-wage jobs, affordable housing and community-based mental health services to prevent crime by youths rather than paying steeply for punishment after the fact. With summer approaching, communities need more recreational space and programs for young people, not harsh enforcement of curfew laws that will propel more teens into the justice system. Imagine the crime prevention that could be achieved with the $500 per-day per-teen that we squander on incarceration?

Let’s use our knowledge, experience and taxpayer dollars to support programs that work — education, employment, housing, mental health services, community-based resources — and continue to transform the juvenile legal system so we are serious about safety and about the value of every young person in our community. As tempting as it may be to appear tough on crime, resurrecting the failed policies of the past is nothing more than a false promise.

Susan Vivian Mangold is CEO of the Juvenile Law Center.

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