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In 1996, around 6,000 San Franciscans under age 18 were referred to the Juvenile Probation Department: approximately 4,700 were referred for arrests for criminal offenses, and about 1,300 were referred for probation violations and other matters (Figure 1).

Figure 1. San Francisco youth arrested or referred to probation and incarcerations as percent of referrals

Sources: San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, 2016; California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2016.

In 2015, juvenile probation referrals had fallen to around 1,200 (including approximately 800 referrals from arrests) — a decline of over 80 percent. Adjusted for the decrease in the city’s youth population, the average San Francisco young person today is 76 percent less likely to be referred to probation as the result of arrest or probation violations than a youth 20 years ago. The first three months of 2016 project further declines (Table 1).

While the number of young people entering the justice system by arrest, or reentering via probation violation, has fallen dramatically in San Francisco, incarceration rates have not dropped as sharply. On an average day in 1996, 222 San Francisco youth were incarcerated in state facilities or at the local facilities — the Youth Guidance Center or Log Cabin Ranch. Today, fewer than 90 youth, on average, are incarcerated – a decline of 53 percent.

Table 1. San Francisco youth entering criminal justice system, and outcomes

Sources: San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, 2016; California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2016.

The effect is that, while the average youth today is far less likely to be arrested or referred to probation, the few who do enter the system are twice as likely to be incarcerated than youth in the 1990s, a period of much higher youth crime.

This increase in the odds of youth incarceration might make sense if the average youth arrestee was charged with a more serious offense than in the past. However, this is not the case. Arrests of San Francisco youth for violent offenses have fallen just as sharply as for other crimes. So far, in 2016, this decline is continuing.

Why has the trend in juvenile incarceration, particularly in county juvenile facilities, lagged behind trends in youth arrest and probation referrals? If the same proportion of youth were incarcerated per referral as in the 1990s, then the number of young people behind bars on any given day would fall from 80 – 90 to 40 – 50.

It is becoming more and more difficult to reconcile prevailing commentaries and policies with actual trends in crime by young people. We continue to hear that young people are more violent, naturally inclined to crime, and in need of drastic new investments in correctional facilities such as the proposed California Leadership Academy. San Francisco officials such as former Chief Probation Officer William Sifferman declared in 2013 that modern youths are carrying more guns and are more dangerous than the kids of 25 years ago” or when I started 43 years ago when it was stealing hubcaps, riding in stolen cars and shoplifting.”

None of this appears even remotely accurate. In 1970, the San Francisco Police Department reported 813 juvenile arrests for violent felonies (including six for murder, 26 for rape, 493 for robbery, and 288 for aggravated assault – not just stealing hubcaps” and shoplifting”). In 1990, around 600 youth were arrested for violent felonies. In 2013, this number dropped to around 360 and, in 2015, fewer than 200. Violence levels among youth in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were far higher than those reported in any recent year.

In the last three years, in particular, the San Francisco Police Department simultaneously reported a considerable increase in reported violent offenses overall and an over 50 percent reduction in violent offenses by youths, a trend the city’s Juvenile Probation Department also reported. Figures from law enforcement and public health agencies show crime, violence, and victimization among youth have plunged to all-time lows, well below rates among adults in their thirties and even forties. And yet, a report by the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Families is only the latest to fail to acknowledge these profoundly instructive trends.

The crisis in juvenile justice and community policy reform is that attitudes lagging decades behind the times (or were always dubious) continue to govern perceptions and policy. In San Francisco, a city in which there now are twice as many arrests of people over age 50 than of those under age 18 every year, there needs to be a drastic change in the ways officials talk about young people and local resources are committed to youth, including greater investment in positive outcomes such as educational opportunities.