The number of juveniles arrested for crimes in America dropped a whopping 15.5% in 2013 compared to a 3.7% drop for adults, according to the FBI’s latest crime statistics report released this week.
That 15.5% drop was preceded by drops of roughly 10% every year since 2009. While the latest drop is particularly steep, it reflects a trend in America that contradicts media reports suggesting the US “criminalizes” kids too much: US cops are arresting fewer and fewer kids.
“It seems like we’re at a turning point in how we’re dealing with juvenile crimes and incarceration,” UCLA associate professor Laura Abrams told Business Insider. “I think the rates we’re seeing are reflecting that turning point. There’s a larger recognition that arresting and putting young people into the juvenile justice system doesn’t help them.”
When juvenile arrest rates peaked in the 1990s, the US was a more dangerous place than it is now. The climate of fear may have made it easier for the public to support arresting teenagers, even for minor crimes like vandalism.
But the US got safer. At the same time, Abrams pointed out, nonprofits like the Annie E. Casey Foundation pushed for alternatives to jailing and arresting kids. This push, combined with a safer environment, likely made it easier for the public to embrace alternatives to putting teens in handcuffs.
In 2012 the Supreme Court issued a decision that reflected this new line of thinking on how to treat juvenile offenders, as The New York Times reported. That decision banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles, recognising that kids shouldn’t be as culpable for their actions as adults.
To be sure, these changing attitudes might not be the only reason fewer kids are getting arrested.
Many of the big drops in juvenile arrests were for burglary, theft, vandalism, and disorderly conduct, Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg pointed out in an email to Business Insider. It’s possible kids are actually committing fewer of these crimes these days, according to Steinberg, a psychology professor who wrote “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.”
“One theory that is gaining popularity is that kids today are so occupied with electronic gadgets, social media, video games and the like that they are spending more time at home and less time on the street,” Steinberg said in an email.
Regardless of the explanation, it’s probably a good thing that more juveniles are staying out of the criminal justice system.
“You rarely get to say, ‘Wow, things are getting better,'” Abrams told me. “But it seems they are.”
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