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Report: Fewer Locked-Up Kids, Less Youth Crime

PHOTO: The number of youths in juvenile corrections is down nationwide and in Arizona over the last 18 years. A new report credits the approach for a sharp drop in juvenile crime. CREDIT: Thomas Hugh Martin, ESQ.
February 27. 2013
PHOTO: The number of youths in juvenile corrections is down nationwide and in Arizona over the last 18 years. A new report credits the approach for a sharp drop in juvenile crime. CREDIT: Thomas Hugh Martin, ESQ.

PHOENIX - In Arizona and nationwide, fewer juveniles are being incarcerated. At the same time, the juvenile crime rate is down sharply. A report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says the nation and Arizona are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.

The report urges further expansion of community-based alternatives to detention. For most youthful offenders, said Beth Rosenberg, director of child welfare and juvenile justice for the Children's Action Alliance, counseling or community service are much better alternatives.

"I think we all, as juveniles, have done something that maybe would have gotten us into trouble," she said. "Adolescents take risks, they make stupid mistakes, but that's part of adolescent development. Give kids an opportunity to make that mistake and learn from that mistake."

The report recommends incarceration only for youths who pose a threat to public safety, and small, treatment-oriented facilities for those who must be confined.

Dr. Kellie Warren, chief operating officer at Florence Crittenton Services in Phoenix and a former deputy director of Arizona Juvenile Corrections, said Arizona is creating more community diversion programs for low-risk offenders while the agencies involved are doing better at collaborating.

"I think we need to get to those kids sooner, wrap services around them and their family," she said. "I believe those initiatives are helping the crime rate and are also helping divert those kids out of juvenile justice."

Chris Phillis, director of the public advocate for the Maricopa County Attorney's office, said studies have shown the more juveniles are incarceratedc, the more likely they are to come back. Once you lock up a child, she said, you take them away from the social support of family and education. Then when they come out, she added, "schools don't want to take them back, because now they're seen more as troublemakers. Where they're so far behind in the semester, they don't want to go to school anymore. They don't go to dances, they don't engage in sports and they're not doing those things that we consider normal for children of their age."

Juvenile detention also is far more expensive than community-based alternatives, Phillis said, adding that the research backs up Arizona's recent emphasis on diversion.

For most children, she said, "just the fact that they were caught, is enough to keep them from doing it again."

Arizona's juvenile confinement rate has dropped 57 percent since 1997. The actual number in juvenile corrections today is around 300, down from a peak of about 1,000.

The report, "Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States," is online at aecf.org.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ