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Is Juvenile Crime Decreasing in Wyoming?

This week I attended two days of the Judiciary Interim Committee. There were several juvenile justice related topics on the agenda. During my attendance at these long and sometimes heated meetings a junior legislator asked out loud (in frustration) if anyone knew whether juvenile crime in Wyoming was actually decreasing.

This legislator had heard that juvenile crime overall was decreasing nationally and wanted to know if the same was true for Wyoming.

This is what juvenile arrest rates look like nationally between 1994 and 2012. 2012 is the most recent year that there is FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program data for juvenile arrests.

Juvenile Crime Decreasing Chart 1

The numbers that you see are arrest rates per 100,000. This means that in 1994 nationally, 9,146 juveniles were arrested per 100,000 juveniles. This arrest rate had decreased to 3,969 per 100,000 by 2012 with a mostly steady decrease in juvenile arrests along the way.

I recommend that you explore juvenile arrest data for yourself. The FBI arrest data is hosted by the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) site. This data is fully available to the public and while you won’t find pretty charts and graphs, the source data is all available from 1994 through 2012.

Since we’re mostly interested in Wyoming I charted the same data for Wyoming juvenile arrests over the same time period.

Juvenile Crime Decreasing Chart 2

You may have immediately noticed that Wyoming numbers are higher than national numbers. This arrest rate does not depend on the size of the population. In fact, the whole point of using arrest rates is so that you can compare the performance of a large population to a smaller one. So the national arrest rate for juveniles in 2012 was 3,969 per 100,000 and Wyoming’s was 8,165 per 100,000. If your decimal math is but a distant memory, simply move the decimal place over to the left by three to see what that looks like as a percentage of kids in the relevant age group.

This means that in Wyoming, any group of 100 kids between the ages of ten and seventeen had eight children arrested in 2012.

It is also clear from Wyoming’s ups and downs that we are not operating under clear and consistent policies. The nature of juvenile populations is constantly changing as kids age out of the juvenile system and other youngsters age in. In small communities like Wyoming’s, a relatively small group of kids who get into trouble can spike these outcome charts. This is where consistent policy is supposed to come in.

In theory, as Wyoming’s juvenile justice system integrated “best practices” from national standards and other states with successful programs, the curve of the juvenile arrest trend should smooth out. Wyoming’s trend over time does not look smooth. In fact, the curve looks like validation for those of us who have been looking at the juvenile justice system and thinking that it is a disorganized mess.

To understand the difference that policy makes I looked at another state with a similar juvenile population to Wyoming’s.

In 2012 Vermont had 59,700 juveniles between the ages of ten and seventeen compared to Wyoming’s 58,479 juveniles in the same year and age range.

Juvenile Crime Decreasing Chart 3

Wyoming’s path in juvenile arrests looks significantly more varied than Vermont’s. Additionally, of course, there is the fact that Wyoming’s juvenile arrest rate in 2012 was nearly four times that of Vermont’s.

So it turns out that the simple answer to “Is juvenile crime decreasing in Wyoming” is “yes”…awkwardly. Measuring arrest rates is only one piece of the puzzle when looking at juvenile crime, but it’s a start. Play with the numbers for yourself. When you have convinced yourself that Wyoming is not currently doing what it should for juvenile justice, let’s make some real changes.

Population profiles: National Center for Health Statistics (2014). Vintage 2013 postcensal estimates of the resident population of the United States (April 1, 2010, July 1, 2010-July 1, 2013), by year, county, single-year of age (0, 1, 2, .., 85 years and over), bridged race, Hispanic origin, and sex. Prepared under a collaborative arrangement with the U.S. Census Bureau. Available online from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/bridged_race.htm as of June 26, 2014, following release by the U.S. Census Bureau of the unbridged Vintage 2013 postcensal estimates by 5-year age group on June 26, 2014. [Retrieved 7/1/2014]

Arrest statistics: Suggested Citation: Puzzanchera, C. and Kang, W. (2014). "Easy Access to FBI Arrest Statistics 1994-2012" Online. Available: http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezaucr/

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