Youth Crime Mystery

Anyone trying to figure out why youth crime has been declining nationwide in recent years could probably find no better place to study than California: The state’s juvenile arrest rate dropped 42 percent from 1995 to 2005, while its youth incarceration rate dropped 73 percent in the same period.

But what the California experience really seems to show is the difficulty of explaining youth crime trends, and of getting anyone – including youth advocates, government officials and the media – to buck the conventional wisdom that says more and more kids are getting locked up.

“This isn’t supposed to happen,” Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), says of the historic drop in crime. “Nobody was even looking in this direction, and if nobody’s looking, you don’t see it.”

The notion of falling arrests and incarcerations is not surprising from a national perspective. After all, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes dipped 18 percent across the United States between 1999 and 2004. Overall crime has been down as well, although recent figures indicate a slight upturn.

What has shocked some researchers is the size of the declines in California. The arrest rate for violent crimes for youth ages 10 to 17 went down 27 percent from 1999 to 2004, According to “Testing Incapacitation Theory: Youth Crime and Incarceration in California,” released by CJCJ last summer. Between 1997 and 2003, the rate at which California locked up youth was cut in half, compared with a national decline of 14 percent, the report says.

The improvements among California youth were not limited to violent arrests. The report says juvenile drug arrest rates also steadily declined between 1997 and 2005, while the adult drug arrest rate has increased rapidly since 2001.

The findings so rattled the state’s juvenile justice observers that, based on Internet and Lexis-Nexis searches, it appears that zero youth advocacy groups stepped forward to comment on it. The state Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) was so thrilled that it offered no explanation. The media were so thirsty for a story that turned youth stereotypes on their head that just one local paper covered the report’s findings.

Which leaves this question for juvenile justice: Why did California’s juvenile offender population decline so significantly, and what can other states and advocates learn from it?


None of the common predictors of such a precipitous statistical drop apply in California, say study authors Macallair and Mike Males, a CJCJ research fellow (and columnist for Youth Today). Lower overall poverty is often the panacea that leads to any number of improvements in youth well-being. But the share of children in California who are poor declined only slightly between 1995 and 2000 and has stayed between 18 percent and 20 percent ever since.

Progressive juvenile justice reforms aimed at finding alternatives to incarcerating youth can do the trick. But Males notes that Proposition 21, passed in 2000, “expanded the number of crimes that would be gang-related, and now we have younger age incarcerations. The effect should have been to add substantially to the juvenile population.”

Meanwhile, nobody is accusing the entertainment industry of getting less violent.

So what’s going on?

“Given the poverty rate, the violence on TV, the gambling and hard liquor, and the whole culture not assisting in crime prevention, you would think more [California] kids would lose their way,” says Bob Fellmeth, president of California Children’s Advocacy Institute.

Searching for answers from advocates and researchers around the state produced several theories for the decline:

County Lock-Ups – In 1996, the state started charging counties for each youth they sent to facilities run by the California Youth Authority (or CYA, which recently became the DJJ). “That discouraged counties from sending low-level offenders” to the state, says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Add to that a highly publicized lawsuit regarding the treatment of juveniles in state custody, and Macallair is somewhat sold on the idea that counties began keeping more of their adjudicated youth. “I think it is partially true that there was and is a reluctance to send kids to CYA,” he says. “There was a declining commitment rate … as a result of the charge-back, but you saw an even more sudden drop beginning in 2003, when publicity over the lawsuit came up.”

While this could explain the incarceration decline, it doesn’t explain the decline in arrests. The average daily population in county juvenile detention did increase from 9,631 in 1994 to a peak of 14,566 in 2001, but dropped back to 13,524 by 2005.

Three Strikes – The timing of California’s juvenile crime nosedive and the passage of its harsh penalties for felons who re-offend is hard to overlook. In 1994, counties were given permission to impose life sentences on two-time violent offenders who were convicted of a third felony charge, a practice known as “three strikes.”

The adult incarceration rate rose from about 594 per 100,000 that year to 739 in 1998, and has hovered around 680 in recent years. Meanwhile, the arrest rate of juveniles has dropped in all years but one (2001) since the law was passed, a cumulative decrease of 45 percent between 1994 and 2005.

Perhaps this proves the reverse of youth development’s fundamental premise about the impact of positive adult role models: Would the removal of poor adult influences – violent felons – make youth less prone to commit crimes?

“One theory could be that we got tougher on adults and took bad parents away and put them behind bars,” Males says. “And it shows youth a terrible consequence for crime. If I was a conservative that liked three strikes, that’s how I’d frame it.”

The numbers don’t exactly bear out the theory. County judges have wide discretion in applying the three strikes law. All 21 of California’s major counties experienced declines in juvenile commitment rates to DJJ. But large declines occurred in counties that heavily applied “three strikes” and those that barely did.

The Bad Old Days – Dana Bunnett wonders whether the whole mystery is framed wrong. “You could look at it as, from the late 1970s to the ’80s, why did [arrest and incarceration rates] go up so high?” posits Bunnett, the executive director of Kids in Common, which advocates and mobilizes resources for children’s services in Santa Clara County.

As a budding youth worker, she helped run playground programs in Costa Mesa in those years. “We had programs on almost every single playground,” Bunnett recalled.

But in 1978, a so-called “Taxpayer’s Revolt” occurred, with Proposition 13 forcing massive government funding cutbacks across the state. Among the victims: playground and neighborhood youth programs. Bunnett wonders if California pushed more kids into juvenile justice by taking away positive options.

The juvenile incarceration rate was about 127 per 100,000 when Proposition 13 passed, and rose every year for the next decade, peaking at 284 in 1988.

The violent crime arrest rate, however, rose briefly after 1978, declined in the mid-80s, rose again, then really exploded between 1990 and 1994 – more than a decade after the passage of California’s massive tax cuts.


With holes in every theory, Males is resigned to a conclusion that is probably of little help to youth workers: Kids are just taking it upon themselves to act better. “The only explanation is, kids here are not committing as much crime,” Males says. “It’s just not the way we think youth act.”

CJCJ’s research was received by the advocacy circles with the same excitement as an eviction notice, Males says.

“I see liberal agencies here get up [at conferences] and say that we’re locking up all our black youth and Latinos,” Males says. “That’s how entrenched the mentality of a juvenile crime increase is. It will stay that way until everybody is in position to take credit for it.”

Contact: CJCJ (415) 621-5661,


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