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Recently, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections’ (BSCC) Juvenile Justice Data Working Group released comprehensive reports on state grants and overall juvenile justice policy reforms. These reports offer a blueprint for improving the three major state data systems of the Department of Justice (DOJ), BSCC, and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

California’s juvenile justice system has undergone significant reforms over the past 20 years, including juvenile realignment, record drops in juvenile crime, and better social outcomes (e.g. drop in teenage pregnancy, higher education). Though progress has been made, without adequate data, researchers and policy makers still struggle to understand why these positive changes are occurring and how they are impacting public safety and the state’s justice-involved youth.

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).

The BSCC, CDCR, and DOJ all collect relevant data on California’s juvenile justice system. Yet, each struggles to provide comprehensive information that is accessible, consistent, and transparent. Policymakers, researchers, youth advocates, law enforcement, young people, and communities rely on data to answer fundamental questions. Without adequate data, key juvenile justice questions remain unanswered:

  • Why has California’s juvenile crime rate dropped to the lowest point since 1959?
  • California’s county juvenile justice systems receive approximately $200 million in total grants annually through the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) and the Youthful Offender Block Grant (YOBG). What is the measurable impact of that funding?
  • Since 2007, the state allocated $300 million for local juvenile facility construction. What kinds of facilities have been built and how are they improving public safety?
  • How can California effectively measure the success of youth programming if there is no statewide definition of recidivism?

California does not have an established definition for juvenile justice recidivism, unlike 39 of 50 states nationwide, according to a 2015 survey cited in the JJDWG report. Texas, like California, recently implemented policy of juvenile justice realignment. However, Texas also developed metrics for measuring local recidivism and social outcomes, something California has thus far been unable to do.

CDCR’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) struggles to provide recidivism data, despite the associated per youth cost of $251,751. The state also struggles to measure the impact of Proposition 21, passed in 2000. While DOJ releases annual reports, it fails to provide more specific county-level information that articulates the justice-by-geography situation in our state. California recently adopted a statewide definition for adult recidivism, yet none exists for juveniles.

The BSCC Juvenile Detention Profile Survey provides county facility population numbers, but it has not been updated since March 2015 and does not include important information such as race/​ethnicity, offense type, and length-of-stay in a juvenile facility. The BSCC also oversees two funding streams through the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act and the Youthful Offender Block Grant. In 2012, the California State Auditor noted the agency struggles to investigate how funding correlates with specific public safety outcomes.

The BSCC’s Juvenile Justice Data Working Group offers a thoughtful recommendation for the creation of a one-stop portal for state data under the BSCC’s jurisdiction. This would help those trying to better understand California’s juvenile justice system. However, the BSCC would need to expand its staffing and resource capacity to implement this suggestion. In addition, the BSCC needs to recognize their leadership position and the importance of ongoing stakeholder involvement to move forward.

Data can tell a story. The absence of data and thoughtful analysis can do the same, by illustrating that the state is not adequately prioritizing juvenile justice. Without data-driven policymaking, our state fails our communities and young people. Our local and state juvenile justice systems make decisions everyday that impact the next generation of Californians. If justice policy is meant to improve public safety, then data must serve as a foundation. The question is whether we have the vision to use data for thoughtful policymaking and hold ourselves to that standard. California’s young people deserve better.