Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice
California has undertaken two gigantic experiments in de-incarceration, one of youths and the other adults. They were largely forced on the state by court mandates and budget constraints—but also by some key policy changes.
The first experiment is so radical that even the most progressive reformers could never have envisioned it. California has all but abolished state imprisonment and has sharply reduced local incarceration of youths to the lowest levels ever recorded—by far.
In 1996, there were 10,115 youths in state-run youth correctional facilities, and another 10,678 temporarily confined in local juvenile halls and camps—a total of 20,793 youths locked up on an average day in a total youth population age 10-17 of 3.7 million.
Since 1996, California’s teenaged youth population has grown to 4.1 million. Yet, as of December 31, 2013, California held just 683 youths in state-run youth correctional facilities (which effectively operate as juvenile prisons) and housed 8,653 temporarily in local juvenile halls and camps—a total of 9,336 youths behind bars on an average day. That’s a 60% drop in the rate of youth incarceration in 17 years, along with a huge shift toward local and shorter terms.
Reliable records going back to 1943 (when state juvenile facilities held 1,080 wards in a youth population of just 850,000) and sporadic facility counts from earlier years show the proportion of California youths who are incarcerated probably stands at an all-time low.
The most spectacular reductions have been in state incarceration of youths—down 88% for violent crimes, and down 99% for property, drug, and other crimes. The state now commits youth only for the most serious offenses. Today, 96% of state Division of Juvenile Facilities commitments are for felony violence, 4% for major property offenses, and none for drugs or other crimes.
In summary, California now has a record-high youth population, now nearly three-quarters of color, a record-high proportion of which is out on the streets—a “triple whammy” that terrified the most-quoted crime experts. “Get ready,” UCLA crime expert James Q. Wilson grimly warned in 1995, forecasting a surge in violence accompanying the growth and racial diversification of the teenage population. A “teenage crime storm,” “new wave of mayhem,” “juvenile superpredators,” and “deadly demographics” led the dire predictions.
What actually happened? California’s youth crime rate plummeted to its lowest level since the first statewide crime statistics in 1957. That year, juvenile arrests equaled 9.4% of the state’s youths age 10-17, including 1.3% for felonies. In 2012, juvenile arrests totaled just 2.9% of youth population (including 0.9% for felonies)—one-third the rate of the 1950s, and a 60% drop since 1996.
The second experiment has been an unprecedented reduction in adult incarceration. Since 1999, as prison populations nationally remained stable, California reduced its adult prison rosters by 30,000, a decline rivaled only by New York’s.
In 1999, approximately 240,000 adults were held in California state prisons and local jails on an average day, in an adult population (age 18-69) of 21.7 million. In 2013, 217,000 were incarcerated in an adult population of 25.8 million. That’s a decline in the adult incarceration rate of 24% in 14 years, back to the level of 1993.
During the post-1999 period of adult de-incarceration, violent crime declined through the first half of 2013, with decreases in rates of adult arrests (down 30%) and reported offenses (down 35%, to the lowest level in half a century, including a 27% drop in homicide). Property offenses fell 13%, with adult property-offense rates dropping 14% and overall arrests falling 30% over the period. The only bad news seems to be sporadic, localized fluctuations in property and drug offenses.
While large-scale de-incarceration of youth and low-level adult offenders in favor of alternative strategies may contribute to long-term benefits, the size of California’s crime decrease, especially among youth, suggests much larger forces are at work. That locking up lots of younger and lesser offenders is not vital to public safety today opens up discussion beyond the simplistic debates of the past surrounding get-tough measures and sentencing reform.
By managing increasing numbers of offenders at the local level, California’s counties have the opportunity to develop solutions rooted in best practices to promote better outcomes for justice-involved individuals. Many counties operate model programs with proven results that can be replicated through technical assistance by law enforcement peers. California has no viable option to retreat back to the high-incarceration past; our only realistic choice is to initiate a modern discussion to forge 21st century justice strategies.
Mike Males is with the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice.