Over the past few years, many highly distinguished and well respected professionals have retired after lengthy careers working with troubled youth in Alaska. For this issue of the Alaska Justice Forum, we asked three of these professionals to provide reflections from their work within the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, the Anchorage School District, and the Alaska Court System. These professionals are Dean Williams, who was the Superintendent of the McLaughlin Youth Center; Carol Comeau, who was the Superintendent of the Anchorage School District; and William Hitchcock, who was the Master of the Anchorage Children's Court. Together, they provide a thoughtful perspective on key issues facing school districts and the juvenile justice system. The purpose of this introductory article is to provide some context for school discipline issues by summarizing recent trends in juvenile delinquency, school suspensions, and expulsions in Alaska.
Trends in Juvenile Delinquency
Law enforcement agencies make referrals to the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) if there is a finding of probable cause to conclude that a youth (1) committed an offense which would be criminal if committed by an adult, (2) committed a felony traffic offense, or (3) committed an alcohol offense after two prior convictions in District Court for minor consuming. The Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice publishes yearly statistics on juveniles, referrals, and charges (or offenses). Each juvenile may be referred multiple times within a fiscal year (resulting in multiple referrals per juvenile), and each referral may include multiple charges.
In looking at trends, rates were calculated using Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates for the 10 to 17-year-old population in Alaska. Very few youth under 10 years of age are referred to DJJ-usually about one percent. A small number of youth who are 18 years of age or older are referred to DJJ for probation violations or for crimes committed prior to their 18th birthday-usually 3-4 percent. Following are data on three related measures: rate of juveniles referred to DJJ, rate of referrals to DJJ, and rate of offenses referred to DJJ. Each has shown a marked decline since 2003.
Rate of Juveniles Referred to DJJ
Since 2003, there has been a steady decline in the rates of juveniles referred to DJJ (see Figure 1). This rate is based on an unduplicated count-juveniles who were referred multiple times within the same fiscal year are only counted once. In State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2003, there were 564 juveniles referred to DJJ per 10,000 juveniles in the state population. By SFY 2012, the rate of juveniles referred to DJJ dropped by 42 percent, down to 325 per 10,000 juveniles.
Rate of referrals to DJJ
Some juveniles were referred multiple times within the same year. The referral rate is based on a duplicated count-each referral is counted once. The rate of referrals to DJJ also dropped considerably from SFY 2003 to SFY 2012-from 819 down to 471 referrals per 10,000 juveniles, a decrease of 42 percent.
Rate of offenses referred to DJJ
The offense rate (which counts all offenses referred to DJJ) dropped by 36 percent from SFY 2003 to SFY 2012-from 1,284 charges per 10,000 juveniles to 825. All three of these trends (in juveniles referred, referrals, and offenses) show steady and noteworthy declines in juvenile delinquency.
Figure 2 further examines the rate of offenses referred to DJJ, by type of offense-offenses against persons, offenses against property, probation violations and conduct violations (PV/CV), drug and alcohol offenses, and other offenses. Other offenses include public order offenses (such as providing false information to police, hindering prosecution, harming a police dog, escape and unlawful evasion), weapon offenses, and other miscellaneous offenses (such as municipal criminal code violations and interstate compact referrals). Most of the trends in offenses referred to DJJ are consistent with the trends in juveniles referred and number of referrals-the rate of offenses against persons dropped by 36 percent (from 215 to 138 per 10,000), the rate of offenses against property dropped by 48 percent (from 693 to 361 per 10,000), the rate of drug and alcohol offenses dropped by 26 percent (from 96 to 71 per 10,000), and the rate of other offenses dropped by 40 percent (from 106 to 64 per 10,000).
However, the rate of probation violations and conduct violations increased from SFY 2003 to SFY 2012. More specifically, the rate of probation violations and conduct violations increased by 11 percent, from 173 per 10,000 juveniles in SFY 2003 up to 192 per 10,000 juveniles in SFY 2012. The rate peaked in SFY 2007 with 249 probation and conduct violations per 10,000 juveniles in the state population. Although probation and conduct violations increased overall during this period, from SFY 2007 to FY 2012, the rate of probation violations and conduct violations decreased by 23 percent.
Trends in School Suspensions and Expulsions
From the 2005-2006 school year until 2009-2010, rates of suspensions and expulsions in Alaska among high school students remained relatively stable, but then increased strikingly in 2010-2011. (See Figure 3.) The rate of suspensions and expulsions per 10,000 students was 4,483 in the 2005-2006 school year and reached a high of 5,899 in 2010-2011. This rise in the 2010-2011 school year represents a 27 percent increase in suspensions and expulsions over the previous school year. Prior to this marked upturn, the largest annual change in suspension and expulsion rates was the 11 percent increase that took place between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years.
The number of suspensions and expulsions for every cause reported by school districts was greater in the 2010-2011 school year than for any previous year going back to 2005-2006. (See Table 1.) The most significant percentage increases in suspensions and expulsions in 2010-2011 relative to the prior school year of 2009-2010 were in the following areas: alcohol (90%), drug use (89%), fights and assaults (85%), and harassment/extortion (78%) (percentage increases not shown in table).
It is important to acknowledge that reporting requirements have changed at the state level and school districts no longer report the reasons for suspensions and expulsions the same way as in previous years. During the 2010-2011 school year, there were no instances recorded of suspensions and expulsions for (1) truancy, (2) arson or vandalism, (3) theft, or (4) inappropriate behavior. No suspensions for these causes were noted because these categories of incidents are not listed under new data reporting requirements. Of particular note is the absence of suspensions or expulsions for inappropriate behavior during the 2010-2011 school year. Suspensions and expulsions for inappropriate behavior, along with suspensions and expulsions for "other" reasons, were the most frequent causes for suspensions and expulsions every school year between 2005 and 2010. Therefore, zero reported instances during the 2010-2011 school year significantly impacts annual trends in reasons for school suspensions and expulsions. This change in trend more likely reflects a change in the way suspension and expulsion data were reported than a change in student behavior. While the marked increase in the number of suspensions and expulsions overall in the 2010-2011 school year is evident, it is unclear whether this reflects a change in school policy or student behavior.
These recent trend data are part of the array of information that can be used by policymakers in school districts and the juvenile justice system. The statistics discussed here provide background for the accompanying articles in this issue of the Forum on zero tolerance policies, school discipline, and the Anchorage School District/Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice diversion program, StepUp.
André B. Rosay is a professor and the director of research in the Justice Center. Marny Rivera is an associate professor in the Justice Center.