New Numbers From the OJJDP

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has just released a whopper of a report (clocking in at 170 pages) called “Juvenile Court Statistics 2003–2004,” which pulls together data from more than 1.6 million juvenile cases and looks at delinquency cases handled between 1985 and 2004. The report is chock-full of analysis (charts, graphs, statistics, bullet points, breakouts by category). A quick glance at the long-term trends shows, for example, that:

• Between 1960 and 2004, juvenile court delinquency caseloads increased more than 300 percent.

• Between 1985 and 2004, delinquency caseloads involving person, drug, and public order offenses more than doubled.

• Caseloads for violent crime and several categories of theft declined, while those for minor and nonviolent categories such as liquor law violations and obstruction of justice spiked.

• Across all categories, case rates for females has gone up.

• The proportion of delinquency cases involving black youth increased from 25 percent in 1985 to 31 percent in 2004.

• In the same time period, the number of cases that led to detention shot up 42 percent; incarceration rates for drug offenders rose a devastating 117 percent.

• Although black youth represented 31 percent of the overall delinquency caseload in 2004, they made up 37 percent of the detention caseload.

These numbers seem to confirm some of the general talking points reformers have been advancing for some time now: namely, that in the age of the “superpredator,” the rate of violent crime among juveniles actually went down, while nonviolent, or “status,” offenses–primarily involving drug use–were met with increasingly harsh punshment; that this era has seen an over-reliance on detention, which in turn has undermined efforts at rehabilitation and counseling on the part of community programs, families and educators; that such an approach has stigmatized youth generally, exacerbated the disproportionate rate of minority confinement and criminalized an increasing number of girls; and that the bloated juvenile prison system cannot sustain continued growth at these rates.

The data tell the story: It’s time to rethink the US approach to juvenile justice.

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