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Juvenile Crime is Down and High School Graduation is Up: Good News or Distraction?

By Robert Kinscherff, Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience

At first glance it seems like unequivocal good news: Juvenile crime rates are at approximately the same levels as the early 1970’s and high school graduation rates have risen from 65 percent four years ago to 82 percent in 2013-2014. But, a closer look suggests a different picture under the surface of this aggregate national data. 

Overall rates of juvenile crime have diminished considerably since the high-water mark in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s but “hot spots” of violent crime by juveniles and young adults—especially gun violence—persistently burn in neighborhoods of large cities like Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and Baltimore as well as in smaller cities like Flint (MI), New Haven (CT), Rockford (IL), Odessa (TX), and Springfield (MA), and in many rural areas with intractable high poverty rates and which have seen gang infiltration in recent years.

Similarly, the historically high rates of high school graduation do not necessarily reflect adequate preparation for higher education or the workplace (As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short, New York Times, December 26, 2015). The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that just under 40 percent of Grade 12 students were adequately prepared for community college or other higher education in either reading or mathematics. Fewer than a third of high school students who enroll in two-year college programs complete a degree by the end of the third year and drop-out rates remain high at both two-year and four-year collegiate programs. Many of these students are graduated from high schools who educate disproportionately impoverished and/or minority students.

High school graduation rates may be increasing for a variety of reasons. Some states have lowered graduation requirements, many school districts now have programs to permit struggling students to retake classes or to demonstrate proficiency through alternative means, and some schools allow truant youth to “buy back” absent days through attendance and academic activity. Many schools have taken steps to rely upon positive behavioral support systems and to identify and support youth who warrant special educational services.

However, graduation rates may also be increased through suspension or expulsion of academically struggling or behaviorally challenging youth following a school-based arrest. The disproportionate contact and confinement of minority and/or impoverished youth that has been well documented in the juvenile justice system (and the adult criminal justice system in the era of “mass incarceration”) has been characterized as a structural “school to prison pipeline” that is one portion of a broader “cradle to prison” pipeline which systematically disadvantages youth of color who are also impoverished. Some 70 percent of youth arrested for misconduct at school are Black or Latino, some 40 percent of youth expelled from school annually are Black, and Black and Latino youth are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than are White youth for similar misconduct.

Additionally, youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are also disproportionately more likely to have an untreated or undertreated mental disorder and/or substance use disorder, or to have learning or developmental disabilities. Indeed, research indicates a higher rate of school-based arrest for youth in special educational services—especially if they are males of color from impoverished families. The more deeply youth penetrate the juvenile justice system, the greater the prevalence and severity of mental disorders, substance use disorders, and learning challenges. Expelling these youth or transferring responsibility for their education to juvenile justice systems and facilities “off-loads” youth who could otherwise bring down scores on mandated standardized testing or lower graduation rates of individual schools and school districts. Unfortunately, research indicates that punitive approaches to juvenile misconduct that includes removal from the community and facilities-based intervention (when not absolutely necessary for public safety) is likely to increase rather than decrease recidivism—and therefore compromise rather than support public safety.

Some initiatives are now seeking to address the unintended consequences of school-based arrests and unnecessary entanglement in the juvenile justice system—especially unwarranted detention or prolonged facilities-based incarceration. Responding to research indicating that simply placing police officers (sometimes known as school resource officers) commonly increases rates of school-based arrest without significant improvement of school safety, the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice has created a curriculum to train school resource officers to recognize and respond to the mental health needs of youth in crisis at school. Connecticut has implemented initiatives to replace responses by mobile mental health crisis teams to schools  rather than routinely relying upon arrest—which resulted over time in fewer arrests, “crisis incidents” with students, and disciplinary suspensions at the schools involved.

Nationally, approximately 70 percent of men incarcerated in state and federal prisons do not have a high school diploma and they are disproportionately men of color from impoverished backgrounds. Each of these measures—however well-intentioned—constitute profound failures in educational and juvenile justice police which increase rather than diminish community safety over time: school-based arrests of youth for common adolescent misconduct, expelling youth from school for conduct that does not truly threaten school safety, compromising their abilities to academically succeed by over-reliance upon disciplinary suspensions, failing to adequately educate them when committed to juvenile incarceration facilities. Additionally, the high school diploma youth are awarded is a cruelly hollow promise if it does not actually reflect adequate preparation for employment, further vocational training, or higher education.

Similarly, failures by national and local political leaders to create a sense of urgency about gun violence or to insist upon research-based public health and law enforcement approaches to address violent crime “hot spots” have forced thousands of youth to essentially live in and attend schools in what amount to combat zones. Not surprisingly, many of the urban schools with the lowest rates of achievement and graduate are those seeking to educate youth living in and around violent “hot spots.” The end of November 2015 counted some 2,703 shootings with 440 deaths in Chicago. It is perhaps not too cynical to observe that if this carnage and its profoundly damaging individual and community impacts—in only this one major American city–had been inflicted by politically or religiously motivated zealots that the chorus of outrage and calls to effective action from state and national leaders would resound from coast to coast. Rates of violent crime committed by juveniles have significantly dropped nationally over the past twenty years but this is of little solace to youth who must adapt to the violence around them which chronically threatens their lives and their potential for positive youth development. Even a high school diploma which reflects genuine achievement counts for little if the graduate is fatally shot as collateral damage in a drive-by or if meaningful opportunities are denied as a consequence of the circumstances of birth, family or neighborhood.

Dr. Robert Kinscherff, JD, PhD is the 2015-2016 Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior and the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School.

This post is part of a recurring blog series on juvenile justice by Dr. Kinscherff. Read all blog posts here.