According to the Public Policy Institute of California’s report, young people today are committing “far fewer” crimes as compared to the previous generations. The data reveals that juvenile arrests have declined nationwide over the last 24 years, dropping from 84% between 1996 and 2020. This trend mirrors the decline in arrest rates for California young adults as violent crime arrests have fallen by more than 50 percent over the last 25 years. These results are unusual as young people tend to partake more in criminal activity during their teenage years — late teens to early 20s — than any other age period. However, as studies substantiate that young adults are committing fewer violent crimes, ongoing state efforts should shift from building capacity to improving living conditions and treatment in juvenile centers by funneling justice-involved youth into community-based support systems that increase rehabilitation success.
In California, intervention programs for at-risk youth and new law enforcement policies may significantly contribute to the decline in youth arrests. From the 1990s to the 2000s, California implemented numerous juvenile justice reforms supported by federal funding. The most significant change came in 2020 when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 823, a policy that closes state youth prisons and transfers justice-involved youth to their local or home counties. Receiving $200 million a year, the counties are now directly responsible for supervising and treating youth who conflict with the law.
By improving living conditions and developing more robust intervention programs, county centers enable detainees to receive more visits from family and friends, engage with community groups and live in comfortable environments near home. Justice-involved youth rehabilitate much better with access to parents, siblings and their children. Additionally, justice-involved youth can participate in educational and vocational programs that can lead to viable career options post-release.
Still, concerns regarding oversight and abuse issues remain, such as recent overdoses in Los Angeles juvenile hall and the substandard condition of local county facilities that have been raised by opponents of the “responsibility” transfer. Though these concerns are valid and counties need to facilitate safe environments, the proven higher outcomes for rehabilitation of justice-involved youth near their families and homes are essential to their recovery. If county facilities continue to reform and address oversight issues, local facilities will provide more humane treatment options and responses for recovery. Furthermore, the sheer size of state juvenile centers has become completely unnecessary due to the declining number of youth committing violent crimes.
California’s criminal justice system, particularly the youth incarceration system, is not flawless and needs to continue being an important legislative issue. The decline of young people committing violent crimes is a positive trend that requires ongoing focus and further reforms to the youth incarceration system and treatment plans. County facilities offer a long-term improvement as they provide justice-involved youth with a less restrictive setting, more specialized care and a better connection to their personal lives than state facilities.