New report debunks widespread myth of youth-led crime wave

prev
next

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Sentencing Project has released a new report debunking the widespread narrative that youth crime exploded during the pandemic. The report, “Data Reveals Violence Among Youth Under 18 Has Not Spiked in the Pandemic,” finds scarce evidence of a new youth-led crime wave. Rather, most of the data suggests that rates of violence among people under 18 have been flat or declining. 

This report comes at an important moment. Throughout the pandemic, many media outlets and policymakers have perpetuated a narrative that youth crime is skyrocketing. Simultaneously, recent mass shootings have shown the heinous damage that a single individual can cause with easy access to guns.  

Scattered anecdotes and talk of out-of-control youth are fueling calls for stricter punishments and harsher treatment. But such methods have consistently proven to be ineffective at preventing crime, and are likely to cause crime to increase.  

“It’s crucial to set the record straight. There is no evidence of a significant increase in youth crime or violence,” said Richard Mendel, Senior Research Fellow at the Sentencing Project and author of the report. “Of course, we must do everything we can to steer young people away from delinquency, and we must block young people’s access to deadly assault weapons. But the evidence is overwhelming that imposing more extreme punishments on youth doesn’t work. Instead, we need to implement strategies that actually reduce crime – like minimizing youth confinement and improving social, emotional, and mental health support for young people within their schools and communities.”

The report reveals that the share of crimes in the United States committed by youth has fallen by more than half over the past two decades and continued to fall for all major offense categories in 2020 (the most recent year for which data is available). Additionally, the overall number of offenses categorized by the FBI as violent (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) committed by youth declined in 2020. 

The report also dives into youth-led carjackings, which have received blanket media coverage based on a spike in youth arrests in some jurisdictions. The report notes that no national data on carjackings is available, and that evidence about the share of carjackings committed by young people is inconclusive. Data does show that total robberies by youth – of which carjackings are a subcategory – declined in 2020.  

The report cites conclusive evidence that punitive policies in the youth justice system don’t deter crime or improve community safety. Indeed, transfer to adult court, heavy reliance on detention and confinement, and criminalization of routine adolescent misbehavior in school all tend to heighten delinquency, worsen youth outcomes, and undermine public safety. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies proven to improve youth outcomes and steer young people away from crime – like hiring counselors rather than police officers in public schools, diverting young people accused of less serious offenses into restorative justice and other community-led alternatives to court, and reducing overreliance on detention, incarceration, and transfers to the adult justice system.

 The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.