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Fewer young people in trouble with the law are being locked behind bars, according to a new data snapshot released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project.

Between 1997 and 2010, the youth confinement rate in North Carolina declined 43 percent, outperforming the national rate which declined by 37 percent.

Reductions in the share of children locked behind bars are happening in states of all political stripes across the country. In fact, the report finds all but four states witnessed a decline in youth confinement during the period of analysis. Sharp declines in juvenile crime rates suggest reductions in youth incarceration have not reduced public safety.

While this news is encouraging, we still have a long way to go to ensure that all children are treated equally and fairly in the juvenile justice system.

The United States locks up more children than any other democratic society and the report finds those children are disproportionately youth of color. African American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than whites. Latino and American Indian youth are between two and three times more likely to be locked up. These disparities suggest youth of color–particularly African Americans and Latinos–receive more punitive treatment in the justice system than similar white youth.

Furthermore, since juvenile justice policy occurs largely at the state level, whether children have access to age-appropriate treatment depends largely on where they live. Although 48 other states handle 16- and 17- year olds in the juvenile justice system, a nearly century-old law in North Carolina funnels those youth into the adult courts. There, they receive criminal justice records that limit their future opportunities and create arbitrary barriers as they attempt to enter the workforce or pursue higher education.

This session the General Assembly will consider legislation that would raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in North Carolina from 16 to 18. This reform would help bring our state’s laws into modern times and strengthen the juvenile justice system. The proposal has been thoroughly vetted and received favorable reviews from two legislative study committees. If enacted, raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction would prevent $50 million dollars in avoidable costs through reduced recidivism and other benefits.

All children do better when we improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children, especially those who have slipped outside the mainstream and run afoul of the law.

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