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Despite Scare, Data Shows Youth-Led Crime Down Sharply

Crime rates among young people have dropped dramatically in recent decades – despite media coverage pointing toward a supposed “crime wave” led by youth.

That’s the finding in a recent report from The Sentencing Project, which shows the share of overall arrests of people younger than 18 was cut in half between 2000 and 2019.

Deena Corso is the juvenile services division director for Multnomah County.

“The trend very much for juvenile crime nationally – and then it’s mirrored here locally – has been sharp, sharp decreases in juvenile crime,” said Corso. “And any efforts to have the pendulum swing back the other way would be not only detrimental to young people but also [contradictory] to public safety.”

Corso said in Multnomah County, the number of crime referrals for young people has decreased from about 2,200 in 2011 to 500 in 2021.

In 2019, Multnomah County completed the Transforming Juvenile Probation Certificate Program, which emphasizes expanding diversion programs, decreasing probation conditions, and increasing incentives that promote positive behaviors.

Richard Mendel authored The Sentencing Project report.

He said people should be skeptical of pushes for more punitive measures, especially when the data doesn’t back up the need for it. He said locking kids up can have a detrimental effect that lasts long past youth.

“You take them away from school. You take them away from activities of rites of passage of adolescence,” said Mendel. “And you surround them instead with incarceration with other troubled kids. And it’s a negative dynamic that halts their natural progression to age out of these behaviors.”

In 2019, Oregon lawmakers updated Measure 11, a voter-passed initiative from 1994 that led kids as young as 15 to be charged in adult courts. The updates roll back some of the tough-on-crime positions for young people.

Corso said we understand more about young people’s brains now than we did when the measure passed.

“I am a firm believer in keeping kids in the kids’ system,” said Corso. “Meeting youth where they’re at developmentally, the incredible capacity that young people have for change and habilitation or rehabilitation.”

The Sentence Project report suggests states follow Oregon and not process youths in adult court. It also urges emphasizing diversion programs and hiring more counselors instead of police officers in schools.

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