By age 23, there is a one-in-three chance that an American youth has been arrested.
That shocking data comes from a recent article in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at the University of North Carolina — Charlotte. They looked at a national sample of youths from ages eight (Yes, we arrest eight-year-olds in this country.) to 23 over an 11-year span and found a rate of arrests between 30.2 percent and 41.4 percent, with the biggest jump coming in late adolescence. The researchers excluded traffic violations, so we are talking about serious, life-altering trouble for a third, possibly more, of our youth.
Adults sometimes think that sending a kid away in handcuffs is a good way to "scare him straight." Mountains of research say otherwise. Arrest is linked to reduced graduation rates and to future arrests. Once a youth enters the system, it can be easier to go deeper than to get out.
Youth advocates used to push for afterschool programming because kids were at prime risk of delinquency between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The last school bell had rung, but mom and dad weren't home. We thought that being around caring adults was the key to keeping kids out of trouble.
In fact, the most common place for a youth to get arrested in Connecticut may be in school. Historically districts have not tracked arrests in their schools, though the state Judicial Branch will soon do so. The Court Support Services Division did a analysis of sample data over a three-month period and found that 40.3 percent of delinquency cases were school related. This does not mean that our schools are awash in crime. The division found that reasons for these arrests included "possession of tobacco" and other behavior that only a few years ago surely would have been handled without involving law enforcement.
In many schools, the critical job of teaching students appropriate behavior has been relegated to police officers, often stationed in schools as "resource officers." This is in no way meant as a slam against these officers, many of whom have expanded their role to include mentorship of at-risk kids. But referring a youth who can't settle down in class to a cop is not a solution. It is often the beginning of a much bigger problem.
Increasingly adults are recognizing that arrest should be a last resort in dealing with adolescent behavior. The Judicial Branch has begun rejecting school-based arrests when the offenses do not rise to the level of true delinquency. Instead, the courts offers suggestions to police and school administrators about community resources that could more appropriately — and more cheaply — help address a child's issues.
In nine different school districts, police and school administrations have signed memorandums of agreement to combat school arrests. This template developed by the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee offers a pattern of graduated responses to typical teen behavior and makes arrest a last resort, as it should be.
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance has worked intensively with Manchester and Willimantic, two communities that resolved to reduce their in-school arrests. This has meant hard but inspiring work. School administrators, youth advocates, police and state officials all come together and work out how they can do better by youths with the resources they have.
Across the country, similar efforts are taking place. Sometimes they have the backing of large funders, sometimes not. This is one of those happy circumstances where doing what's best for kids saves money — not in the future but right away. It costs more than $700 for a youth to spend one night locked up in the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. It costs nothing to decide not to arrest a kid.
Should the kids getting arrested for having tobacco get smoking cessation programs? Absolutely, and that costs something. Are there kids getting arrested for being disruptive who have behavioral health needs that must be addressed? Absolutely, and that costs something. But until we build a perfect world where every child gets optimal services, we can at least stop doing the most damaging and costly thing possible — arresting them. We can at least stop making things worse.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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