Over the past 15 years, the United States has seen drastic reductions in its world-leading rates of youth incarceration. Nowhere were these reductions more dramatic than in California, which once boasted the largest youth corrections system in the world.
To put this change in perspective, in 1996 California confined nearly 10,000 youths in 11 correctional facilities. Today, the state’s youth corrections system is comprised of three aging institutions with a combined population of about 700. By any measure, California’s unprecedented reduction in youth incarceration places the state at the forefront of 21st-century juvenile justice reform.
While there is reason to celebrate these changes, the slow but ongoing movement of California toward local alternatives to state incarceration of youth offers important lessons and cautionary notes to reformers in other states. Understanding juvenile justice reform in California requires an analysis of its origins.
Most of the decline in commitments to state youth correctional institutions is not the result of lawsuits or new legislation, but is attributable to reductions in serious youth crime. In 1995, 85,100 California youth were arrested for felonies while only 27,700 were arrested in 2014 — a 67 percent decline. While the reasons for the crime decline are the subject of scholarly debate, it appears that approximately two-thirds of the drop is due to a better-behaved generation.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons to be derived from California’s juvenile justice reform is that crime rates and youth incarceration are not related — a fact typically avoided by scholars and rejected by juvenile justice practitioners.
While the reduction in youth crime is a primary contributor to declining incarceration rates, California’s systemic changes offer important lessons to juvenile justice reformers. Careful analysis reveals that California reduced its youth incarceration rates by at least one-third by promoting local, county-based options.
For much of the 20th century, California had high youth incarceration rates due to a law that allowed county judges to commit youth to state institutions at no cost to the county. This resulted in a “dumping effect” and large jurisdictional disparities when many of the state’s 58 county-based juvenile courts chose to relinquish responsibilities for “problem youth” by shipping them to state-run facilities.
Recent efforts to counter these county commitment disparities began in 1996 when the state passed legislation requiring counties to pay a share of the cost for committing certain low-level offenders to state correctional facilities. The impact was immediate, as the number of new commitments rapidly declined from 3,500 in 1996 to 1,600 in 2001, and fell to just 350 in 2014.
County commitments were further diminished due to a cascade of damning investigations and media revelations that exposed horrible conditions within the state youth facilities. Accounts of ubiquitous gang violence and “gladiator” contests staged by staff generated headlines and attracted public attention to the realities of California’s youth facilities.
The biggest blow came when the Prison Law Office filed suit over inhumane conditions in California’s youth correctional facilities and forced the state to enter into a consent decree. Under the consent decree, the state acknowledged the horrendous conditions within its facilities and agreed to a series of remedial actions.
Initially, institutional violence remained, and efforts to draft new policies and retrain staff proved fruitless. Growing frustration with bureaucratic lethargy led state policymakers and juvenile justice advocates to draft model legislation to accelerate the process. Senate Bill 81, passed in August 2007, included provisions that restricted a county’s ability to commit low-level offenders to the state while providing funds to augment county services. This legislation facilitated another precipitous drop in the institutional population and prompted the closure of all but three of the original 11 correctional facilities.
Once the largest and most violent youth correctional system in the country, California’s decline in youth incarceration is unparalleled, providing valuable lessons for other states. While violence persists within the remaining institutions, fewer youth are exposed to such conditions and the capacity of county juvenile justice systems has been greatly enhanced.
The challenge confronting California juvenile justice is whether the system will continue to move forward with systemic reform or recede into old practices, forgetting the lessons of the past. This issue will be explored in a future column.
Daniel Macallair is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and author of a new book, “After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of 21st Century Reform.”
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