The Sentencing Project released another excellent report last week. I have sung the praises of their reports before, and their latest follows in the same tradition. And though it’s chock full of numbers, this report made me think about what too often gets lost when we talk about crime.
Crime-speak in this country takes place on two levels. The first, and only rarely the more important, has to do with the crime as an act, an unembellished declaration standing for no more and no less than the event itself. My home was burglarized some years ago and my wife and I lost a few bottles of wine and the ashes of our late cat, Okie (presumably mistaken for something smoke-able). My report to the police was an example of this unadorned reporting: I have no idea who did it, how many people were involved, whether he/she/they were kids or adults, or whether this was his/her/their first or 500th burglary. I also have no idea about the traits that seem to matter most to a great many people: the race and ethnicity of my intruder(s). I just know that one or more people broke a window in the back door, came in while my wife and I were away, and took some stuff.
But of course, virtually no crime-speak in this country takes place in this just-the-facts register. When we shift from bare event (“my house was burgled”) to social meaning (“and therefore…”), nearly everything about the crime becomes a resource in public narratives about the way life is and ought to be. People with a stake in society’s direction and an ability to steer it one way or another—think, Tucker Carlson but also Amy Goodman—deploy the bare fact to advance an argument. Suddenly, it matters a great deal if the burglary was an isolated event or part of a “crime wave.” It matters if it involved straight-A students who skipped school for a one-off thrill, or adult “gangs” that prowl neighborhoods looking for unoccupied houses. And to many people, it matters a great deal if the intruder(s) were Black, Latinx, Asian, or White.
As we fill in these missing details, for this and countless other crimes, the bare facts combine to create a social parable. Crime might be a ‘problem,’ or it might not. It might tell us something about race or class, or it might not. It might tell us something about policing, or it might not. The bare fact of crime (the burglary) has the meaning we assign it in society (the “therefore…”). In short, we construct social meaning.
This is probably familiar to regular readers, and I’m not implying anything particularly sophisticated. All of us participate in this social construction practically all the time, and not just in conversations about crime. Anyone who has ever tried to figure out, for instance, why there are more trees in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones is engaging in the social construction of meaning. As soon as we pass from bare fact (“no trees”) to explanation (“and therefore…”), we are constructing social meaning.
But at least when it comes to crime-speak, something unfortunate happens when this meaning-making takes place. As crime is deployed in battles over the way the world is and ought to be, we become steadily removed from the human toll of the bare fact itself. Eventually, we can no longer see that crime is not simply a social phenomenon. It is not, in other words, primarily grist for politicians and media personalities. It is first, and perhaps most importantly, personal. This is particularly true as the crime becomes more serious. Before violent crime becomes the subject of thoughts and prayers on Twitter, it is a searing personal event—certainly for the victim but often for the offender as well. Yet precisely because of its public potency, violence is most apt to be pressed into service by this or that claims-maker. Violent crime becomes important principally for its contribution to a public narrative while the people involved are increasingly treated as pawns to be paraded before cameras. (Parenthetically, the tendency of crime-speak to render people invisible is the primary motivation for the best restorative justice models like Common Justice, which aims to restore the primacy of participants’ experience.)
This socially constructed disappearing act came to mind when I read the Sentencing Project’s latest report, Youth Justice by the Numbers, which tracks various metrics about youth incarceration over the last several decades. Here’s the topline eye-grabber: “Between 2000 (the peak year) and 2020, the number of youth held in juvenile justice facilities on a typical day fell from 108,800 to 25,000, a 77% decline.” Part of this decline, at least in 2020, can be traced to the pandemic, when enforcement fell sharply across the board. But this is not just a pandemic story: the number of children detained by the criminal legal system fell every year between 2000 and 2020, sometimes precipitously, just as it climbed nearly every year between 1975 and 2000. The graph showing the total number of detained kids from 1975-2020 looks like a roller coaster, and 2020 was part of the long-term trend.
Of course, the national numbers conceal wide variation among the states. Alaska detains children at a rate nearly three times the national average and about 16 times more often than New Hampshire. But my south-bashing friends, who think distance below the Mason-Dixon line is the most reliable proxy for carceral severity, should take a closer look. Tennessee and Mississippi have some of the lowest rates of juvenile detention; Minnesota and Oregon some of the highest. The rate in Washington, D.C. is the third highest in the country, after Alaska and West Virginia.
And if you are thinking this is just a story about weak-kneed judges, you should know that other metrics follow the same broad trend. Youth arrest rates, for instance, have fallen more than 80% since 1996, the peak year. And though it is not a part of this report, the Sentencing Project could have added that youth arrests for violent crime in 2020 were half the number of 2010, and 78% below the peak in 1994. (Roughly six to eight percent of juvenile arrests every year are for crimes of violence, which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.) The number of children held in adult prison or jail has also fallen dramatically. On any given day in 2021, only 292 people under the age of 18 were in adult prisons and only 2,000 were in adult jails, a decline of 84% from the peak in 1997. Twenty-seven states in 2021 had no children in adult prisons.
It’s not all good news, of course; there are still severe racial disparities in juvenile detention. The Sentencing Project found that Black and Tribal youth are much more likely to be detained than White and Asian youth, for instance, while Latinx youth are detained more often than White but considerably less often than Black and Tribal. Explaining this disparity is vital work that I will take up in subsequent essays. For now, it is important to acknowledge that some of this disparity, at least for Black youth, can be explained by higher rates of offending. This fact alone, however, doesn’t mean what some people think it means; as a very recent report by the National Academies of Science describes, most if not all of these higher offending rates disappear when we take structural and environmental conditions into account.
The racial disparity numbers are just a few of the facts that claims-makers will press into service when they talk about crime in America. The Sentencing Project’s latest report will contribute to many of these narratives, as it should. This meaning-making is inevitable in a democracy, though inevitable is not always the same as healthy. And we can only expect it to continue as we head into another election season and crime-speak fills the airwaves.
But as you reflect on the new Sentencing Project report, I encourage you to step away for a moment from all the therefores and bring yourself back to this bare fact: On any given day in 2020, there were 83,800 fewer children in cages than there were just two decades earlier.
We don’t need a claims-maker to tell us that’s really good news.