As California Youth Crime Plummets, Need For Innovative Re-engagement Strategies Rises

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I’ve argued that notions demeaning the “teenage brain,” “adolescent risk,” and “crime-prone youth” are just simplistic adult prejudices with no scientific basis that hamper understanding of the root conditions and individual situations that drive challenges affecting youth. However, youths do deserve singular considerations in the justice system.

In Miller v Alabama, which limited life without parole sentences for crimes committed before age 18, the U.S. Supreme Court cited three crucial points that remain largely ignored:

job training: Mike Males (headshot), senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, serious-looking man with thinning gray hair, beard, mustache, wearing wire-frame glasses, black T-shirt.

Mike Males

First, youths have only limited “control over their own environment” and “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.” Second, juvenile courts deny youthful defendants important rights and procedures accorded adult defendants. Third, life without parole is an “especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” who will serve “more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.”

Essentially, a society whose legal system denies youths full adult rights cannot subject youths to full adult punishments — let alone punish youth more than adults for equivalent offenses. In addition to redressing age iniquities in the correctional system, trends in youth contact with the justice system also merit attention.

Transformation called for

In California, juvenile arrests have plunged from a peak of 408,000 in 1974 to 277,000 in 1997 to 56,000 in 2017 — all while the state’s teen population grew by one million and became more diverse. In notorious Los Angeles, teenage homicide arrests fell from 407 in 1990 to 26 in 2017. So much for the once-feared “superpredator” wave.

The plummet in youth crime has necessitated transformation of California’s juvenile justice system. Statewide, eight of 11 state-run facilities have closed, and the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) budget fell by 70% as the number of youth confined at DJJ plunged from 10,000 in 1996 to 700 today. Further, just 3% of the DJJ population today are female, compared to 15% in 1965, which debunks the “new violent girl” panic spread by Harvard School of Public Health and Cornell University academics.

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At the local level, reformers are considering the transfer of youth in juvenile halls to alternative community-based programs. In particular, San Francisco’s proposed closure of juvenile hall sets it on the path to model juvenile justice reform for other counties and states. These innovative conversations sparked a San Francisco Chronicle investigation, which exposed the exploding per-youth costs of California’s local juvenile facilities as populations plummeted from 10,600 in 1996 to 3,700 today.

Unfortunately, the system is fighting back with more trials and incarceration. Court dispositions per juvenile arrest have risen 58% and incarcerations per juvenile arrest rose 72% over the last decade even though crimes have not become more serious.

With California teenagers age 12-19 now less likely to get arrested than adults age 50-59, maybe it’s time to shut down the juvenile justice experiment as we know it, beginning with its costly, abuse-prone, non-rehabilitative youth correctional institutions.

Yet, there’s a new problem. While youth crimes have not become more serious overall, the drastically reduced numbers of youth who get deep into the system now represent a more troubled fraction. Nine in 10 youths sent to California’s state facilities have been convicted of serious violent crimes. These youth, whose troubles are exacerbated by severely disadvantaged and isolating conditions, must be prioritized in advocacy efforts to support youth within the community.

Powerlessness, disconnection 

The plummet in youth crime coupled with justifiable, humane reforms to keep lesser-offending youth out of detention have largely eliminated their moderating influences from juvenile facilities. The 2019 challenge is how to re-engage the small, diminishing fraction of youth left out of their generation’s trends toward plunging crime and higher educational attainment.

Given the 80 to 90% decline in juvenile crime rates over the last 40 years, it is absurd to keep labeling adolescents “crime prone.” Rather, paraphrasing the Court’s Miller findings, the critical issue now is to address the powerlessness and disconnection of youth who remain in the system.

There are several alternatives; two are offered here. One major means of reconnection is a serious commitment to job training and education. For example, bolstering the California Conservation Corps by using dozens of mostly empty juvenile and fire camps to house, employ and train qualifying justice-involved youth and adults in environmental restoration, maintenance and preservation would provide stable employment opportunities and help California manage the intensifying floods, fires and droughts accompanying climate change.

Another promising strategy is civic engagement. The campaign led by Initiate Justice to restore voting rights to incarcerated and paroled populations in California is one example of how we can improve connections to society and decrease recidivism for justice-involved individuals. Combined with efforts to extend California’s voting age to 16, the campaign could encompass youth as well.

Juvenile justice advocates need to catch up to the massive reductions in crime and changing needs of those who remain in the system by prioritizing connections within our communities.

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”

3 thoughts on “As California Youth Crime Plummets, Need For Innovative Re-engagement Strategies Rises

  1. Thanks much for your incisive comments! I think all of us involved in juvenile justice need to take a deep breath. Arrests of youth have fallen so dramatically and unexpectedly (California juvenile hall numbers indicate another big drop in 2018) that all of our theories and assumptions, mine included, are subject to rethinking. You are absolutely correct that for both youths and adults, the conditions those coming into the system were subjected to — poverty, abuse, domestic and third-party violence, systemic failures — are paramount. In California, reforms unthinkable even five years ago are now being considered. This is a very exciting time, and we need rigorous analysis with a human face more than ever.

  2. Great article. Agree entirely! From purely a. Jurist point of view, many juvenile justice systems disrespect In re Gault by failing to live up to delivering the same constitutional rights provided to adults and the Supreme Court failed teenagers and thus violate their integrity as citizens and members of the human race by not extending In re Gault to include the right to a jury trial, even if limited to a 6 person jury and for alleged crimes in which the teenager is facing removal from his or her home. The Supreme Court has held that a person facing incarceration for more than 6 months is entitled to a jury trial and yet we deny all these teenagers that Mike Males is referring to a right to a trial by jury. What makes teenagers any different than adults under circumstances facing incarceration for lengthy periods? Nothing. Adolescent brain research, regardless where one stands on it, but assuming we take it for what it says, should never be applied to limit teenagers constitutional rights when accused of a crime in which they are facing incarceration or even lengthy removal to any place other than his or her home. To do so assumes that we are presuming they are guilty because we are overextending the reach of the brain research (and misinterpreting it) to assume guilt. In other words, too many of us in the system are letting our adult Brian’s run away withis research like a runaway train with no engineer to pull the brake and saying to ourselves, “Well, the research says they are prone to risk taking behaviors so they must be guilty.” That is rubbish. Of my 20 years on the juvenile court bench, I have spent the last 10 years in the superior court every month presiding over adult criminal trials and sentencing folks and I can assure you that I see just as many adults as I do kids who are prone to risk taking behaviors for varying reasons of which much arises from their circumstances growing up and in the present. I have limited my use of the research to using it to prevent abuses against our youth (life with parole and death penalty and to stop criminalizing kids for being kids which pushes them into criminality when had we left them alone they would be okay), which also occur with adults who live horrible circumstances and by such are prone to criminal conduct. And we have done the same to adults especially on misdemeanor offenses by automatically jailing them for non-violent crimes and they languish in county jails because they dont have the means to post bail. If we stop and think about it, and be honest, this is barbaric. It doesn’t protect us, it hurts us all in the long run. Mike has been driving the point to the rest of us that we have to be careful not to celebrate the brain research too much or we unwittingly become the abusers of our kids. We must be thoughtful about its use, and narrowly tailor its application to achieve the ends deserving for our kids, which is to allow them to grow without harming them while also celebrating them as young adults who represent the most intelligent and creative phase of human life. (Please forgive any errors or omissions. I am typing this under restricted circumstances)