After zero tolerance set aside, juvenile crime rate drops
(Calif.) As overall crime rates in California have risen, data also shows a steep decline in juvenile arrests and referrals between 2015 and 2016–a finding that could be linked to softer intervention measures.
Almost 10,000 fewer people under the age of 18 were arrested for misdemeanors and felonies in 2016–a 15 percent drop from 2015, according to the California Department of Justice’s annual crime report on juvenile justice. There were also about 9,000 fewer referrals to probation, including a small decrease in referrals from schools for truancy.
Patricia Soung, senior staff attorney and policy associate at Children’s Defense Fund–California, said the decrease is likely reflective of changing priorities at the state and local level when it comes to dealing with misbehavior.
Schools, for instance, have increasingly turned away from zero tolerance policies in recent years that pushed kids into the juvenile justice system, often for minor offences. And last year, voters approved Proposition 57, which returned the decision about whether to charge juvenile offenders as adults for certain crimes to judges, who advocates said are better suited to take into consideration a child’s circumstances in court.
“Ten thousand is a significant drop in the number of arrests–even when in the last five years we’ve already seen arrests, petitions filed in juvenile courts, and incarceration of youths all drop drastically,” Soung said. “Across the board there is a shift in attitudes and approaches, in large part driven by research and advocacy, about alternatives to arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating young people that focuses on prevention and youth development. This rethinking is happening in collaboration with police, courts, district attorneys, schools or probation."
Entering in the juvenile justice system has major impacts on a child’s immediate future upon release. Beyond simply having a criminal record, which can limit a person’s job prospects later in life, nearly 66 percent of students released from the juvenile court school system nationally do not return to traditional school due to various barriers.
In California, that issue was long exacerbated by the fact that course credits were not properly transferred in many cases to a student’s new school. Students exiting the court system were also unable to enroll if they were unable to pay fines or cover the cost of textbooks lost during a prior attendance.
Since addressing that issue, lawmakers have taken up additional juvenile justice reforms. This year, bills were introduced that targeted the practice of charging families of incarcerated youth for costs including transportation to a juvenile facility, food and shelter while incarcerated, and supervision or surveillance upon release, and set the minimum age a child can be incarcerated to age 12.
But previous changes in public policy appear to have led to opposing outcomes. The enactment Proposition 47 in 2014, which reclassified some felony drug and property offenses as misdemeanors, has been a target of law enforcement officials who say that more criminals who would otherwise be locked up are still on the streets committing crime. According to data from the justice department, while juvenile arrest rates declined, rates of violent crime overall increased about 4 percent from 2015 to 2016, and the rate of motor vehicle thefts rose nearly 3 percent.
Soung credits the changes made by Prop. 47, though, as a part of the reason why fewer juvenile arrests were made. Fewer children were picked up for petty crimes and were more likely to remain bale to attend school. At the same time, unrelated to Prop. 47, referrals for offences such as school truancy decreased almost 7 percentage points.
More often, she said stakeholders are working together to figure out which offences can be diverted away from the justice system so that the focus can instead be placed on figuring out what’s going on in a young person’s life and connecting them to support services.
Soung did warn that it will take more than simply halting policies that push minors into the justice system if the trend in decreasing juvenile arrests is to continue. The state will also have to steer some funding away from the juvenile justice system and into communities for rehabilitation and prevention programs.
“In theory, not detaining young people and prosecuting them and keeping them incarcerated means that we have resources freed up so that we can invest better in services and supports in the community that prevents crime and delinquency in the first place, and are more effective in improving youth and family well-being,” Soung said. “Unless we shift the resources into addressing the underlying needs of the community, we could see a return to relying on the justice system for health and safety.”