Crime Journalists Provided ‘Youth Justice’ Insight in Columbia University Webinar

By Roni Ayalon

NEW YORK, NY – Justice Lab at Columbia University and the Center for Just Journalism partnered this week to deliver a webinar titled “Youth Justice,” discussing the impacts of the criminal justice and mass incarceration systems on youth.

The Center for Just Journalism is a “relatively new organization founded last year [that] act[s] as a resource for journalists covering public safety issues,” according to its Director of Programming Hannah Riley.

The center said it recognizes that reporting on crime can be “complex, opaque, and very high stakes,” so its mission is to “connect reporters with data, research, and experts in order to help promote practices that help [reporters] ground [their] coverage in evidence and avoid sensationalism.”

Riley began the discussion by referencing the “superpredator myth,” a media narrative from the 1990s against youth.

According to Riley, “because of this narrative, 48/50 states actually changed their laws: they lowered the threshold at which teens were jailed with adults and tried with adults. There was just a litany of really harmful,” results “from that kind of coverage and when we look back at the data now, we realize of course that the foundation for that myth was erroneous, it actually wasn’t founded in anything.”

She emphasized the commitment to preventing similar media myths from entering the public sphere and explained to the journalists in attendance the purpose of this webinar was to spread awareness on these issues.

Josh Rovner, the Director of Youth Justice at the Sentencing Project, started off the panelist portion of the webinar by presenting on “Perspective on Youth Justice,” explaining although youth arrest rates have dropped by 80 percent since 1996, “Americans always believe crime is increasing,” according to polls. He said, “there is very little connection between what Americans believe about crime and what is actually true about crime.” To help balance out this perception, he gave journalists several tips for accurately reporting on crime.

Rovner cautioned the journalists about taking all data at face value. He pointed out that arrests are not the same thing as offenses and “arrest data can overstate the impact of youth crime because kids are so much more likely to get in trouble with other kids.” In other words, among youth rates, it is more likely that there could be multiple arrests for the same crime, so rather than the crime rate increasing, perhaps the arrest rate is increasing, but maybe not. Portraying the story as a spike in crime when relying on arrest data may be inaccurate or misleading.

Rovner reminded the journalists that “racial and ethnic disparities persist.” He elaborated that despite the fact that “offending rates are quite similar among youth of different backgrounds, … youth of color are much more likely to be arrested and after arrest, youth of color are treated more harshly.”

Rovner said according to the data, “while Black youth are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than their white peers, they’re 4.4 times more likely to be incarcerated in the juvenile system.”

Rovner also explained why “tough on crime” stances don’t work, arguing, “Youth diverted from formal involvement in the courts have better outcomes, [while] youth who are detained (pre-trial) have worse outcomes, youth who are incarcerated (post-trial) have worse outcomes, [and] youth who are charged as if they were adults have worse outcomes.”

The “so-called ‘tough on crime’ approaches create more crime and harm public safety,” Rovner said.

Rovner displayed data showing youth in adult prisons and jails have dropped by 84 percent since 1997, and although there is a popular belief that this should have led to an increase in crime, “that didn’t happen at all, in fact the case shows the opposite, that locking up fewer kids is better for public safety in the long run.”

Rovner explained the “labeling theory” is “[a] dynamic where the process of identifying young people as delinquent becomes self-fulfilling for a couple of reasons.”

Rovner said that “getting arrested and prosecuting kids in adult court harms kids’ self-image, they start to see themselves as criminals and second, arrest and adjudication in the courts make you known to police and other law enforcement which only heightens the court involvement later on, now that you notice a couple kids behaving weirdly.”

Instead of the tough-on-crime approaches that don’t work, Rovner pointed to diversion programs (meant to create accountability without legal sanctions), alternatives to incarceration, and keeping kids away from adult courts, jails, and prisons as better options to handling youth crime.

Next, Jordyn Wilson, the Youth Justice Campaign Associate for the Sentencing Project, briefly spoke about the portrayal of youth crime in the media and urged journalists to look into the root causes that lead children into crime.

Wilson reminded that “young people involved in the justice system oftentimes are victims themselves,” pointing to root causes of youth crime including incarcerated parents, the school to prison pipeline, school pushout, access to resources in schools, homelessness and limited access to food, among others.

Rather than just focusing on the story of crime, Wilson said “communities need better media outlook on what’s happening in their communities and their areas.”

Wilson added many times, only the negative stories are being highlighted and the positive stories like those focused on services for kids, youth employment opportunities, and information on crisis centers and shelters aren’t centered in the media.

Patrick McCarthy, the Senior Fellow from Columbia Justice Lab, focused on framing crime in the media, reminding journalists that emotional stories without context and history can enhance our biases and lead to the creation and passage of harmful policies that hurt the youth.

McCarthy argued “framing is much too often driven by anecdotes… with very little data, context, history to help the reader truly understand the full picture.”

McCarthy added that these types of anecdotal articles usually rely on just a few sources rather than getting multiple perspectives. He also pointed out that sources usually have an agenda or at least a bias, and that lacking other perspectives can strengthen those agendas and biases.

McCarthy closed his presentation by reminding the audience that anecdotal stories are usually outliers, and that many times they are included because they are outliers. He urged journalists to not sensationalize these stories but to provide the full context.

Finally, Yusef Salaam spoke. One of “The Exonerated Five,” Salam was convicted of rape and assault as a teenager, for crimes he did not commit. Now a motivational speaker, he explained the impact of the media on his experience with the criminal system.

First, Salaam pointed to an ad run by Donald Trump in New York newspapers two weeks after Salaam was accused of the rape. It read, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

Salaam explained how although he hadn’t even made it to trial at this point, the media “looked at the color of our skin and judged us by it.” Despite the fact that there was no DNA evidence tying him to the crime, he was convicted, along with several friends.

He explained that in uncovering the truth of the crime that had been committed, the world learned that one of the true attackers was the “East Side Rapist/Slasher.” This attacker had many victims, one of whom was murdered after this crime took place.

Salaam added if the police had been committed to catching the right person, and had the prosecution stopped once the evidence pointed away from the young teens—rather than choosing to push for convicting innocent Black teenagers of crimes they didn’t commit—then the Slasher’s next victim may have been spared.

About The Author

Roni is a senior at UC Davis, studying Political Science - Public Service with minors in Social and Ethnic Relations, Community and Regional Development, and Sociology. She plans on pursuing a career in criminal justice reform after finishing her degree.

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