In his most recent column, the Washington Post‘s Colby King argues that “criminal behavior by D.C. juveniles is an acute problem,” citing incidents allegedly involving youth offenders. “Ask if the mayor and [D.C. Council], hellbent on greening the city and making cars go away, care enough to focus on the well-being of troubled young people and the safety of our neighborhoods,” King concludes gravely in his column. “Ask away.”
But according to an analysis released in September, juvenile arrests in the District in fact hit their lowest level in a decade last year. DC Lawyers for Youth—a nonprofit advocacy organization—published a report based on data from the Metropolitan Police Department and District Family Court, demonstrating that juvenile arrests dropped 27 percent between 2009 and 2014. The report also found that most youth arrests in 2014 concerned non-violent, non-weapons offenses. Delinquency petitions fell 29 percent since 2009, and the majority did not implicate violence.
“We’re at a time now where, because youth crime is low, we want to make sure young people aren’t scapegoated for what’s happening in our city, primarily with respect to homicides and other violence,” says R. Daniel Okonkwo, DCLY’s executive director. “When we focus wrongly on young people, it distracts us from real solutions to crime.”
The report states that tough-on-crime strategies like the increased prosecution and incarceration of adolescents “have proven to be… shortsighted and ineffective.” DCLY’s legal and policy director, Eddie Ferrer, explains that while it’s unclear what’s caused the dramatic decrease in juvenile crime, the District should invest more in early-intervention strategies such as nurse-family partnerships, home-visit programs, and trauma-informed schooling. These strategies, Ferrer adds, would alleviate the root cases of youth crime—poverty, lack of opportunity, and childhood trauma—while constituting a “public health approach”: one that is preventative rather than reactive, and intervenes at various levels.
The report thus recommends that the agencies responsible for the youth justice system (including MPD, Family Court, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation services) create a unified dataset that would track juvenile crime.
“One or two incidents, or even three months of data, don’t define a trend,” Ferrer says, referring to the relatively violent summer D.C. saw this year (at least as compared with 2014, when there had been roughly 46.3 percent fewer homicides registered as of Oct. 5). “We need to step back and look at the whole picture, and focus on hard hit communities.”
Looking over the past two decades, violent crime isn’t just down among people younger than 18: It’s down by double-digit percentages among adults, too. John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, says community-based policing methods, the end of the crack epidemic, and a focus on rehabilitation over retribution likely drove the decline in youth arrests. He says he supports the recommendations in DCLY’s report, particularly the call for data-driven anti-crime strategies.
“We’re still incapacitating way more kids than we need to,” Roman says. “Kids do way better when they’re not incapacitated. The less we detain kids, the better they and we do.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Screenshots via DCLY report.