December 17, 2014, 10:00 am ET
If Alonza Thomas were a kid today, he might not have ended up serving 13 years in an adult prison.
Thomas committed an armed robbery in 2000 at age 15, shortly after California had tightened its laws against juvenile offenders. The initiative was part of a wave of harsh new laws passed nationwide, aimed at striking back against an anticipated wave of juvenile “superpredators” — remorseless kid criminals.
No one was harmed in the robbery, and Thomas was a first-time offender. But under the new law, Proposition 21, he would be tried as an adult and sentenced to hard time. Facing as many as four decades in prison, Thomas pleaded guilty, lowering his sentence to 13 years, which he would serve in adult prison.
By the time Thomas went to prison, the superpredator scare had been debunked. Juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1997 and have been dropping ever since. Meanwhile, state juvenile facilities and even adult prisons were filling up with kids, straining state budgets and raising serious human-rights concerns.
That is starting to change. In the last six or seven years, states have begun to consider new approaches to juvenile offenders, backed by research showing that incarceration actually increases the chances a young person will commit another crime.
That data has been piling up for years. But states recently have been spurred to act in large part by budget shortfalls amid the recession, and a string of state and federal court decisions objecting to harsh sentencing for young people.
There’s another factor: Crime overall has gone down. After peaking in 1997, the juvenile arrest rate had dropped 48 percent by 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That’s made reform easier to sell politically, making the issue a win on both sides of the political spectrum.
Between 1997 and 2011, 46 states reduced their rate of commitments for juveniles.
“There is a more general movement,” explained Delbert Elliott, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado who studies juvenile crime. “We are past the mentality of, ‘You do an adult crime, you do adult time.’”
The Courts Step In
The juvenile justice landscape has been reshaped in part by a trio of Supreme Court decisions, starting in 2004.
That year, in Roper v. Simmons, the court abolished capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles. In 2010, the court decided in Graham v. Florida that states cannot impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, it expanded on that ruling, declaring mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of any crime to be unconstitutional.
“What Roper and Graham and Miller said explicitly was that kids are not adults. Children are different,” said Barry Feld, a juvenile law professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert on juvenile justice. The courts drew on research showing that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed — particularly when it comes to emotion and decision-making.
The court decisions, he said, “put the onus on the states now for how to respond to young offenders who are convicted and sentenced in criminal court.” The Miller decision overturned mandatory sentencing policies in 28 states.
But state responses have been mixed. Two years later, only 13 have passed new legislation to bring their laws into compliance with the ruling, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform. Those states still require young people to serve long sentences, from 25 to 40 years, before they have a chance at parole. Even those sentences, some reform advocates argue, are far too long to be in compliance with the court’s rulings. On Dec. 15, the Supreme Court said that it would take up a new case, Toca v. Louisiana, to determine whether the Millerruling should be applied retroactively.
Some states have also been forced into changing they way they deal with juveniles by state or federal court rulings. Violent or abusive conditions in juvenile justice systems have been documented in 22 states and Washington D.C. since 2000, according to an analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps states reform their juvenile justice programs. In each case, the lawsuits demonstrated “systemic or recurring failure to protect youth from serious psychical or psychological harm,” such as physical and sexual abuse by staff and other inmates, and the overuse of solitary confinement and restraints.
A Cheaper Alternative
As the recession cramped state budgets, many departments began looking for ways to reduce the costs of juvenile incarceration in their state. A new study by the Justice Policy Institute found that 33 states and jurisdictions spend $100,000 or more annually to incarcerate one young person. By comparison, it costs only about $10,000 a year to send them to public school.
Since 2005, 23 states have taken steps to keep juveniles out of adult prisons, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility and coming up with alternatives to large detention facilities, according to research by the Campaign for Youth Justice.
New York, for example, began to reform its juvenile justice system in 2011. The state was struggling with budget shortfalls, and its juvenile system was a mess. More than 60 percent of juveniles who had been locked up re-offended, and some facilities were under investigation by the Justice Department for their brutal conditions, according to a report on the reforms.
The state set up a task force to implement reforms, including a program to keep young offenders in their own communities rather than sending them to facilities upstate, and focus on their education, mental health and substance abuse problems. Since then, the number of youth in state custody has been cut by 45 percent. Juvenile arrests have also declined.
This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on lawmakers to raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.
Tough-on-crime states are also implementing reforms. In 2013, the Texas legislaturemoved to keep kids in smaller facilities closer to home instead of large state-run facilities, where reports of abuse were rampant. The state also passed two laws in 2013intended to curb the prosecution of kids for offenses in school — such as disrupting a class or bringing in tobacco — cut the number of children in adult court by 83 percent.
Kentucky passed a package of new reforms this year that allows officials in schools and courts to work with young people caught up for minor offenses, linking them with social services rather than routing them through the criminal system. As FRONTLINE reported earlier this year, the state found that it was locking up kids at high rates even as the juvenile crime rate went down, draining half of its juvenile justice budget. And 13 percent of the cases were offenses for which adults can’t be punished — like skipping school. Officials who spearheaded the reforms have said they hope to intervene in young people’s lives while they still have a chance to turn their lives around.
“The Way the System Operates”
In some ways, the change hasn’t been as deep as it seems. There are fewer young people locked up today — 6,000 in adult prisons and roughly 70,000 in juvenile facilities, according to federal data, down from roughly 100,000 youth incarcerated in all facilities in 1997, when arrest rates peaked. But the reforms haven’t had nearly the same impact on minority teens, in particular African-American and Latino youth.
At the height of the mass incarceration era, the arrest rate for white youth was a little over 7,400 per 100,000, compared to 14,300 for black youth, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Today, with juvenile arrest rates cut in half, the arrest rate for black youth is 8,400 per 100,000 — still greater than what it was for white youth back then.
“You can’t understand the way the system operates without understanding these differences, and the idea that we have this kind of disparity,” said Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group, which works with states to implement reforms.
Studies have found that from the schools to the court system, black and Latino youth are much more likely to be dealt with harshly than white youth who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be disciplined in school, even as preschoolers, and administrators are much more likely to involve law enforcement when minority students act out. Once in the juvenile system, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be transferredto adult court and incarcerated than whites who commit similar crimes. The disparitymay even extend to hue: One study found that darker-skinned girls were punished more severely than lighter-skinned ones.
The federal government set up a program this year to help school administrators begin to erode racial bias. The Justice Department has also started to target individual jurisdictions where its investigators have found patterns of racial bias. In 2012, the government signed a consent decree with a major county in Tennessee, after finding that even controlling for other factors, African-American children were treated more harshly in the juvenile justice system. The deal requires the county to submit to widespread reforms, including revising its policies on how it treats kids in the system and consider more often alternatives to detention.
A year later, the department signed a similar agreement with the school district in Meridian, Miss., where the government found black students received harsher punishments and longer suspensions than white students who misbehaved in similar ways. The deal requires the district to provide clear guidelines and training on disciplinary policies for teachers and staff, and set up a system to track progress.