Editorial: Fewer youth facing bars

  • Posted: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 12:10 a.m.

An encouraging report on youth incarceration came in under the radar last week, receiving little fanfare as attention was largely focused on budget drama in Washington.

The rate at which America puts young people behind bars has plunged in the past 15 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation said. Between 1995 and 2010, the youth incarceration rate dropped by more than 40 percent. The Casey study used Census figures to compile the numbers of Americans younger than 21 held in youth centers, adult prisons or other types of detention. North Carolina mirrored the national trend, with a 43 percent decline in youth incarceration over the study period. The study’s compilers said the drop might have been even more pronounced if they’d been able to include more recent data, which they believe will show the trend is continuing.

Why the big drop? Demographics could account for part of the plummet, as the median age shifts toward the grayer side of the scale. But the Casey report points to three other primary causes:

• A move away from a “lock ’em up” attitude and toward alternative strategies.

• An overall decline in juvenile crime.

• Fiscal constraints that make it increasingly unpopular to spend upwards of $80,000 per bed (on average) to incarcerate young offenders.

We can see such factors at work in North Carolina, where there’s growing support for the “Raise the Age” movement that would process 16- and 17-year-old offenders who commit misdemeanors through the juvenile court system, rather than treating them as adults, as the state currently does. A proposal in the General Assembly would change the law. It should be approved. Diverting non-violent youth into the adult system is more likely to turn them into chronic, hardcore offenders than rehabilitate them into productive citizens. Of N.C. youths who had served prison sentences beginning at 16 or 17, almost 70 percent were rearrested within three years of leaving prison, according to the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commisson.

The Casey report makes a strong argument that rehabilitative efforts are both the more humane and cost-effective strategy for dealing with young offenders who’ve shown no violent tendencies. A combination of reducing punishments for low-level offenses and increasing alternative interventions such as counseling and community-based mentoring and monitoring programs can help turn lives around without endangering public safety. Legislators here and in other states should take note.

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