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California's Radical Youth Trends

Over the last 25 years, California has been conducting an astonishing experiment: Drastically slashing the number of youth behind bars, even as the youth population grew rapidly (see chart). A combination of court orders, budget concerns, policy reforms, and local initiatives helped to cut rates of state imprisonment by 94 percent and local jailings by 42 percent — overall, a 68 percent drop in youth incarceration, the largest of any state.

But mainly, youth themselves deserve the credit.

With more youth on the streets than ever before, did Lord of the Flies ensue, as the “superpredator” and “teenage crime storm” (and, more recently, “stupid teen") fearmongers predicted? Did the increasing proportion of youth of color, now nearly three-fourths of the state’s population age 10-17, bring more crime and violence, as the right-wing’s newly vocal xenophobes warn? How did California youth respond to a drastically changed justice system?

As the youth incarceration rate plummets, so does youth crime

California youth incarceration and felony rates per 100,000 population age 10-17. Sources: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Criminal Justice Profiles (2013); Board of State and Community Corrections, Juvenile Detention Survey (2014); Division of Juvenile Justice, DJJ Research and Statistics (2014); California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit, Demographic Research (2014).

Rates of crime among California youth dropped 62 percent, including declines in felonies of 70 percent, violent crimes of 59 percent, and homicides of 87 percent over the same period. Never have youth been less policed; rates of “status crime” (curfew, truancy, etc.) arrest also stand at record lows.

Just as the system locks up many fewer youth, many fewer youth are committing crimes that lead to lockup. You can hear the “radical non-intervention” advocates like CJCJ’s Randall Shelden declaring: “Like we said…”

Authorities appear shocked into rare silence by the scope of these remarkable trends, in which the lowest rates of juvenile incarceration (statistics go back to 1959) coincide with the lowest rates of juvenile crime (statistics begin in 1957) ever reliably recorded. Not that anyone has stepped up with new theories that acknowledge these new realities; in major forums and news media, it’s the same-old same-old.

Keywords: crime trends, incarceration, Mike Males, youth

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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