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Why juvenile incarceration reached its lowest rate in 38 years

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Looking at the period between 1997 and 2010, for instance, seven states (Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Tennessee) saw their youth incarceration rates go down by 50 percent or more, while six (Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and West Virginia) actually bucked the trend and had increased rates for the same period.

Several of the largest states, with the biggest overall numbers of youths behind bars, also saw big drops, notably California and New York.

Still, the overall decline in juvenile confinement occurred in all regions of the country and across all of the five largest racial groups. Rates for African-American youths decreased by 38 percent, rates for Hispanic youths by 51 percent, and rates for non-Hispanic white youths by 37 percent. Still, African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians remain far more likely than white youths to be confined. (African-American youths, in particular, are five times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated.)

While the long-term trend is both striking and encouraging – particularly given research about the negative consequences of unnecessarily locking up nonviolent youths – the United States still has a long way to go, says Lubow.

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