A headline-generating study, published in the journal Pediatrics this week, suggests that approximately one in three Americans is arrested before age 23. That's up from about one in five in 1965, the last time a similar study was conducted. The study used data from surveys given to the 7,335 people who enrolled in the federal government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1996.
This study, a recent joint initiative between the Departments of Justice and Education and a spate of anecdotal stories in the news all suggest a surge in the arrests of minors, and particularly in arrests that originate in schools. But the federal government is both fighting the "school-to-prison" pipeline while continuing to fund the same programs that critics say are causing it. Moreover, because the government hasn't been collecting data on school-based arrests, and the little available data shows overall arrests of juveniles are down, it's difficult to determine if a problem exists, much less whether federal initiatives are solving it -- or contributing to it.
The Pediatrics study seems consistent with a rough survey of the criminal justice system over the same period. The U.S. certainly has more laws now than it did a generation ago. The U.S. incarceration rate has soared since the early 1980s (though last year it declined for the first time in two decades). State and federal governments have been prosecuting consensual crimes more aggressively, particularly drug crimes. And since the late 1990s, again with federal prodding, most public schools have embraced a "zero tolerance" policy for many offenses (drugs and weapons in particular), treating every infraction as if it were a criminal offense. The policy bars school officials from considering context or using nuance when dealing with an accused offender.
There are also more police in America's schools. A survey by the Justice Police Institute released last month found a 37 percent increase in the number of law enforcement personnel (called school resource officers, or SROs) employed by public schools between 1997 and 2007, including more than 5,000 such officers in New York City schools alone. The increase in SROs, also driven by federal funding, was in part influenced by media-driven hysteria over a few highly publicized school shootings in the 1990s.
There have also been a number of stories in the news of late about pre-adolescent children arrested for absurdly minor offenses, including a 6-year-old Wisconsin boy arrested for "playing doctor" with a 5-year-old girl, a 12-year-old arrested in Memphis for not wearing his helmet at a skateboard park, a 13-year-old boy arrested in New Mexico for burping in gym class (his parents' lawsuit also revealed the arrest of a 7-year-old girl who refused "to sit next to the stinky boy" in class), a 10-year-old Connecticut boy arrested for giving a classmate a "wedgie," and a 5-year-old who was bound at the wrists and ankles, arrested and charged with assault after kicking a police officer in the leg.
Taken together, these studies and anecdotes suggest a troubling trend of putting kids in handcuffs for doing the sorts of things kids have always done. This has spurred concern over a burgeoning "school-to-prison pipeline" problem in which children -- particularly poor, minority and at-risk children --are funneled from public schools into the criminal justice system. In response, the Justice Department and the Department of Education launched a joint initiative last July that aims to combat this trend.
One problem with the school-to-prison pipeline narrative, however, is that isn't clear that it actually exists, much less that it's getting worse. According to the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1.9 million minors were arrested in 2009. That's down 17 percent since 2000. The 2.3 million arrested in 2000 was down 20 percent from 1996. Since 2000, juvenile arrests have also slightly declined as a percentage of total arrests, for both violent and property crime.
So how can arrests of minors appear to be dropping and increasing at the same time? Robert Brame, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the lead author of the Pediatrics study, tells HuffPost via email that the overlapping time periods explain some of the discrepancy. "I don't think there is an inconsistency between the two sets of results," Brame writes. "What my study does is measure the cumulative arrest experience of a group of people who were in their teenage years in the late 1990s ... The number we come up with is in the 25 to 41 percent range by age 23. That number seems high to many people (not so much to criminologists) and it does appear to be somewhat higher than it was in the 1960s but not dramatically so. If we looked at a group of people who were adolescents today and followed them for the next 10 years, the cumulative arrest rate might turn out to be lower."
So while it's true that the U.S. experienced a surge in both crime and arrests in the 1970s and 1980s, the drop in total juvenile arrests since the early 1990s is part of a broad and dramatic nationwide drop in crime that began at about the same time.
It is still possible that policies like the funding of SROs and zero tolerance have spurred a surge in school-based arrests, but that the surge was drowned out by a broader drop in crime and arrests overall. Because so little actual crime occurs in schools, school arrests make up only a small percentage of total arrests. The problem is that national data on school-based arrests simply doesn't exist.
Department of Education press spokesman David Thomas told HuffPost that the agency hasn't been tracking those figures. (Officials at the Justice Department did not return a request for comment.) This means that in the 1990s, when the federal government passed policies to incorporate federal crime policy into the public schools, they provided no real way to assess whether or not the policies work, much less to assess possible collateral, unintended consequences. Thomas says the agency's Office of Civil Rights did recently survey 7,000 school districts on student disciplinary actions and law enforcement referrals for 2009-2010. Those results are expected to be released next month. Those figures will at least offer a snapshot of how often minors are arrested on school campuses, but they still won't reveal whether or not school arrests and referrals to law enforcement are rising or falling.
Still, critics say that what data is out there suggests a problem. "It's true that national statistics just aren't available," says Amanda Petteruti, a policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute. "But we do know that surveys of specific cities and school districts have shown a significant increase in school referrals [to law enforcement]." A 2005 study by the advocacy group the Advancement Project, for example, found "the number of arrests in Philadelphia County schools has increased from 1,632 during the 1999-2000 school year to 2,194 in 2002-2003." Arrests at Houston schools jumped fourfold from 2001 to 2002. In Denver, law enforcement referrals at city schools jumped from 818 in 2000-2001 to 1,401 in 2003-2004. Arrests in Chicago schools increased from 7,861 in 2001 to 8,539 in 2003. The study found that in most cases, more than half the arrests were for broadly classified, unspecified offenses like "detrimental behavior," "other" or "miscellaneous."
A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the New York Police Department's School Safety Division arrested more than one student per day and issued summonses to three per day between July and October of this year. Of the 63 arrests, 15 were for serious crimes (felonies). Most of the summonses were for nondescript crimes like disorderly conduct or minor offenses like riding a bike on the sidewalk. But that survey, too -- the first since NYPD was required to release the information -- still doesn't reveal the existence of any underlying trend.
Of course, even if juvenile arrests have fallen since the 1990s -- and even if they've fallen in schools specifically -- it doesn't mean the figure still isn't too high, or that schools shouldn't be looking for less harmful ways to discipline students. Nor does it answer whether zero tolerance or police in school hallways are sound policies.
The history of these policies suggests they are not. Both policies came about in the 1990s, in response to dire warnings from politicians and right-of-center anti-crime activists about the rise of "super predators," a supposed new class of ruthless, brutal, amoral juvenile criminal who was going to wreak havoc on American cities and suburbs.
The wave of super predators never happened. In fact, violent crime had already begun its historic drop when those warnings were issued in the early to mid-1990s, and has continued to drop since. The media also obsessed over a series of anomalous school shootings in the 1990s, which led to new legislation from panicked politicians. But the rise in school shootings was also a myth. A 2000 annual report on school safety issued by the Departments of Education and Justice found that "for students aged 12 to 18, overall school crime ... decreased by nearly a third." A 1996 CDC report arrived at similar results: Children were 40 times more likely to be killed outside the school building than inside of it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, incidence of violent crime in schools, already low, was halved between 1993 and 2008.
The result is a pretty muddled picture of juvenile arrests, and uncertainty as to whether the school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern. With little hard data, the federal government has launched a new program to address an alleged problem that, if it exists, other federal programs may have helped to create. And those programs -- which are still operating -- were passed in response to a problem that may not have existed. In the meantime, the government hasn't bothered to collect the data necessary to assess the efficacy or impact of any these programs.
All of these programs were enacted in the name of protecting children. But without the tools to assess their actual impact, it's impossible determine whether they are actually working, or doing more harm than good.