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As juvenile arrests plummet in California, the proportion of arrested juveniles subjected to court action has skyrocketed. In 2017, 23,000 more youths were referred to juvenile probation, 22,000 more were formally petitioned into court on criminal charges, 14,000 more had court dispositions, and 4,700 more were sent to state or local detention than if justice system and court actions per arrest had remained at 2007 levels.

Referrals can theoretically exceed arrests by a small margin because 10 to 13 percent of referrals to juvenile probation come from sources other than law enforcement. However, due to dismissals and diversions of arrestees from the justice system, arrests have considerably exceeded referrals in the past. In 2007, the ratio of the number of juvenile court referrals to the number of juvenile arrests was 0.86. However, there were 1.28 referrals for every arrest in 2017. The number of referrals per arrest increased sharply for all races. While juvenile arrests fell by 76 percent over the 2007 – 2017 period, juvenile court referrals fell only 65 percent. The referral/​arrest ratio was lower for Latinos in 2007, (0.82, versus 0.90 for other races) but considerably higher in 2017 (1.34 versus 1.21) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Ratio, juvenile court referrals to juvenile arrests by race, 2007 – 2017

Sources: DOJ (2018); DOJ (2018a); DOJ (2018b).

Arrest numbers denote an individual arrest by a law enforcement agency for a status, misdemeanor, or felony offense. Referral numbers reflect an individual brought to the attention of juvenile probation departments for a status (Welfare and Institutions Code, Section 601) or felony or misdemeanor (601) offenses. The Department of Justice (2018a, p. 100) offers two reasons why arrests should exceed referrals:

Each year there is a difference between the number of referrals to probation via the JCPSS and the number of juvenile arrests reported by law enforcement agencies as referred to juvenile court and probation’ via the MACR [Monthly Arrest and Citation Register]. …There are two primary reasons for the difference: a. Probation departments report caseload information, while law enforcement agencies report information on individual arrests. b. The JCPSS [Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical System] counts only those juveniles who have a final disposition reported to the DOJ. Many probation departments divert juveniles out of the system into other community based” programs. As a result, many juveniles who are diverted after being referred by law enforcement agencies are not reported on the JCPSS.”

This does not explain why, from 2013 on, referrals substantially exceeded arrests, or why the ratio should increase so sharply over the last decade.

The increase in referrals per arrest may be related to the large decline in juvenile arrests, from 236,856 in 2007 to 56,849 in 2017. Perhaps those arrested today, though much smaller in number, tend to be charged with more serious offenses and therefore more likely to incur a formal petition to the court rather than being released or diverted. Reforms to marijuana laws have reduced those arrested and referred for lesser offenses. However, the offenses whose arrests show the largest increases in formal charging petitions are not the serious and violent felonies, but the least serious: misdemeanors (mainly theft and vandalism) and status offenses (Table 1).

Table 1. Increase in juvenile court petitions per arrest, 2007 – 2017

Sources: DOJ (2018); DOJ (2018a); DOJ (2018b).

Figure 2. Juvenile/​adult court dispositions (top line) and detentions (bottom line) per arrest, 2007 – 2017

Sources: DOJ (2018); DOJ (2018a); DOJ (2018b).

While system referrals per juvenile arrest rose by 48 percent from 2007 to 2017, juvenile and adult court dispositions per juvenile arrest rose by 58 percent, and detentions in local and state Division of Juvenile Justice facilities per arrest rose by 78 percent over the period (Figure 2) (Department of Justice, 2018, 2018a). In 2007, 43 percent of juvenile arrests resulted in a juvenile/​adult court disposition and 11 percent in detention; in 2017, 68 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Lagging dispositions one year to allow for time lapses between arrest and referral does not change the increase.

Law enforcement agencies account for 88 percent of referrals. From 2007 to 2017, the proportion of referrals from other sources (mainly schools, other states, and parents) rose from 10 percent to 13 percent. The other sources of referral, mainly other public agencies and other individuals, declined sharply. During the period, the proportion of referrals involving repeat cases, which are more likely than new cases to generate formal court action, rose from 26 percent to 32 percent. At most, relatively small changes in referral sources and types would explain only a small part of the large increase in court actions per arrest and the fact that referrals now exceed arrests by 28 percent.

In addition, the number of youths sentenced by adult courts (which typically handle more serious offenses and mete more detention sentences) fell much faster from 2007 to 2017 (down 74 percent) than the number sentenced by juvenile courts (down 62 percent). Normally, that should have reduced the number of youth detentions per arrest.

For numerous reasons, reducing the number of youth entering the justice system, being charged and disposed, and being incarcerated is an important goal. Investigation of the systemic factors leading to an increase in arrested youths facing referral, disposition, and detention of this magnitude is needed.