New statistics show that rates for juvenile crime have dropped substantially across North Carolina over the past several years.
The change tracks the same direction as overall crime rates in the state, but the drop in youth crime has been far larger. The number of teenagers accused of violent crime has declined almost 37 percent since 2002, in contrast to a 14 percent drop in general violent crime arrests. For property crimes, the youth decline—around 40 percent—dramatically outpaced the 4.5 percent reduction in arrest rates for all ages.
National statistics also show a downward trend in youth offenses, but North Carolina’s reported statistics show a decline about double the national average. This has spurred some authorities to see our state as a template for juvenile justice reform across the United States. Harvey Milkman, a professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University in Denver and a criminal justice consultant, told reporters, “North Carolina has developed a national model worth emulating.”
What’s behind the decline?
Some say that the transformation in juvenile justice had its origin in the 1998 Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which closed the “training schools” used to house young offenders. Afterward, teens were diverted to programs that were individualized to their circumstances and their offenses. Some teenagers were confined in new youth detention centers, but many more were given counseling, substance abuse treatment, and educational opportunities.
The decline in crime rates means that the residential centers are needed less. One youth detention center was closed earlier this year because of lower demand for space. Records show that the training schools held about 1,400 children in 1998, but only 300 teenagers are housed in North Carolina’s four youth detention centers today.
Can the trend continue?
At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington criminal justice attorneys are pleased to hear of the decline in youth offense rates—and we’re even more pleased that this seems to carry over into fewer criminal acts by adults. We are, however, somewhat leery about talk of making North Carolina a “national model” for justice reform.
People should recall that the last 15 years has not only been marked by expanding treatment, rehabilitation, and reintegration efforts for teenage offenders. At the same time, North Carolina has offered exceedingly harsh treatment of minors aged 16 and 17, who are automatically treated under adult criminal laws. Anyone who has been a parent of teenage children knows that there is no magic “bright line” of maturity crossed on the 16th birthday, but our laws are rigid and inflexible.
So: half a cheer for better crime statistics. Once North Carolina commits to expanding alternatives to adult criminal punishments, we’ll consider upgrading to a full cheer and a round of applause.