Less Lead Means Fewer Kids in Prison

| Wed Jun. 19, 2013 10:53 AM EDT

Brad Plumer reports that the incarceration rate for youths has plummeted 32 percent over the past decade:

Some of the drop has been driven by the general decline in crime and arrests across the country. But not all. Importantly, another chunk of the drop is due to the fact that nine states — including California, New York and Texas — have been experimenting with new policies to keep kids who commit minor offenses out of jail.

....Take California. Since 2007, the state began to close some of its detention facilities to save money. At the same time, the legislature outlawed confinement for kids who had only committed minor, non-violent offenses. And the state poured some of the savings into alternative programs (which can include drug treatment, home monitoring, or mental-health services).

This is good news. And loyal readers know one of the reasons, right? Our old friend lead. If lead is partially responsible for crime rates, then what you'd expect to see when lead density goes down is (a) a drop in crime, (b) followed a bit later by a drop in youth incarceration, (c) followed by a drop in adult incarceration. And that's exactly the pattern we've seen. Violent crime peaked in 1991 and then started dropping. Youth incarceration rates peaked and started dropping about a decade later. And now, a decade after that, adult incarceration rates are peaking and will almost certainly fall steadily in the near future.

If kids are fundamentally less violent than they used to be, there are fewer to lock up. And the ones who are locked up can often be held in different kinds of facilities. Eventually this will run its course as youth crime rates bottom out, but it probably has another decade or so to go. That's pretty good news.

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