Don’t fall for schemes to revive California’s costly, failed juvenile justice system

Mike Males, Special to CalMatters

For decades, California’s juvenile incarceration system has functioned as a costly, crime-generating calamity. 

The Division of Juvenile Justice and local counties now spend $300,000 to incarcerate one youth for one year, yet 76% of youths released from juvenile facilities are re-arrested within three years. Courts intervene constantly to redress abuses. Still, a recent report finds violence and non-rehabilitation remain rife at juvenile facilities.

Fortunately, young Californians have instigated a massive, 20-year nosedive in crime that is single-handedly abolishing juvenile jails and prisons. 

In 1995, 207,000 youths under age 18 were arrested and sent to probation departments. In 2018, just 38,000. Arrests of 18-19-year-olds have fallen 70%.

As a result, eight state and 20 local juvenile detention centers have closed. The remainder are mostly empty. The Division of Juvenile Justice now holds just 700 people, down from 10,000 in 1996. By our calculation, the drop in juvenile crime has saved governments more than $8 billion in incarceration costs alone.

Young people deserve a lot better than yet another recycling of so-called “reforms” pushed by interest groups casting about for more clients to rescue a failed juvenile system California should be reforming out of existence. 

In a dubious effort to stem plummeting juvenile hall populations, the Chief Probation Officers of California resurrected an idea they formerly rejected: expanding juvenile court jurisdiction from age 17 to 19.

Their proposed Elevate Justice Act of 2020 promises to institute “individualized treatment and rehabilitation, eliminate racial and ethnic disparities, and advance restorative justice practices.” Probation chiefs are now promising new adult clients services they’ve never delivered to their youthful clients.

A more likely result is that probation bureaucracies will return to age-old practices of detaining youth out of convenience rather than need. For decades, Division of Juvenile Justice reports showed youths sentenced by juvenile courts spent more time behind bars than did adults sentenced by criminal courts for the same offenses.

The Chief Probation Officers’ claim their application of “science” deserves credit for plummeting juvenile crime. That’s nonsense. The so-called “new science” of “teenage brain development” touted a decade ago has been debunked by later scientific reviews. It has no validity and no provable impact on crime.

Youthful crime rates are plummeting throughout the state and nation not because criminal justice system personnel suddenly discovered some miraculous new rehabilitation technique, but because far fewer youth are entering the system in the first place. 

The few youths who still get arrested continue to experience the same impersonal, ineffective, and routinized treatment and high rates of recidivism previous generations did.

Young people deserve the credit for dramatically cutting their rates of crime and other troubles. Where teenagers continue to have problems, the culprits are poverty and family issues. Four-fifths of arrests and five-sixths of gun homicides among teenagers occur in areas where youths suffer the highest poverty rates.

Unfortunately, those who justifiably support reforms may find the Chief Probation Officers’ proposal enticing, since it sounds humane on paper. However, shifting clients around will not ameliorate abuses and failed rehabilitation in either the adult or juvenile justice systems. Claiming adult prisons are even worse than juvenile prisons argues for vigorous reforms to both systems, not changing the addresses of a few young clients.

We need genuine reform to expand opportunity, not more agency roulette. Classifying youthful and adult offenders flexibly by rehabilitation potential, rather than arbitrarily by age, and tailoring sentences to address their personal characteristics—that is, real individualized justice—is a crucial first step. 

Redesigning selected prisons, halls, and camps to greatly expand training and paid work in California’s emerging growth industry—fire, flood, drought, and related climate-change amelioration—offers far more potential for qualifying prisoners than the current warehouses where youth and adults languish.

Thanks to its young people, California enjoys an unprecedented opportunity and savings from reduced crime to invest in real justice reform. Let’s not squander it repeating the same old interest-driven schemes.

 ______

Mike Males is senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. To read his past commentaries, please click  herehere, here, here,here, here, here, and here.

Latest in Commentary

California State House

Commentary

California getting tough on homeless?

Commentary

California faces massive costs related to climate change. Oil industry must pay its fair share

Commentary

California prepares to shift away from natural gas, while keeping power reliable and affordable

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, CA on February 17, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Commentary

Bernie Sanders’ $100 billion take-over of PG&E will make California’s electricity problem worse

Commentary

Why California needs Elizabeth Warren as president

California State House

Commentary

Trump reignites California water wars