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Juvenile Crime at All-Time Low, Leaving Empty Beds at Juvenile Hall

Experts are unsure why juvenile crime has dropped in California.

Recent data from the Criminal Justice Statistics Center reported that California is seeing its lowest number of juvenile arrests in nearly 50 years.

Juvenile arrests fell roughly 20 percent overall from 2010 to 2011. About 150,000 youth were arrested last year, making it the lowest annual rate since state records were kept in 1957.

Sacramento County Juvenile Hall is witnessing this same decline in arrests.

The area detention center currently houses approximately 180 youth. Their current capacity is 225, which dropped due to budget cuts.  

“We haven’t seen this low of a number since 1970,” Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer said. “We now get an average of seven [juveniles] a day, and that’s come down from 20 a day.”

Experts cannot pinpoint the exact factors that led to the decline in arrests, but note there may be several reasons.

Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice suggested that a recent change in the state’s marijuana law contributed to a quarter of the decrease in juvenile arrests. The law reduced misdemeanor possession to an infraction, which resulted in a decline of 9,000 arrests.

“This is really a striking trend,” Males said. “Sacramento has had a large decline in juvenile crime, and that means there are fewer youth in detention.”

Meyer noted during 2012 only three juveniles have been arrested for marijuana possession and booked at Sacramento County Juvenile Hall. All other marijuana charges were combined with other more serious crimes.

“Marijuana bookings have been minimal,” Meyer said. “It has not been leading the charts for a long time.”

Arrests for other crimes have also fallen. Violent and property offenses dropped by 16 percent, and juvenile murder arrests plunged by 26 percent.

Meyer welcomes the decline, especially since the local detention center has been plagued with overcrowding in recent years.

“We are nowhere near those numbers now,” he said. “We detain only the kids that need to be detained. “

Since the beginning of 2012, there have been roughly 2,300 bookings in Sacramento County Juvenile Hall. However, law enforcement has given out more than 4,000 citations, relieving the system of thousands of likely bookings.

“If you use subjective judgment on cases, you’re likely to have people detained that shouldn’t be and have people that are released that shouldn’t be,” Meyer said. “We don’t see 90 percent of the people ever again. Their family takes care of business and they don’t come back.”

When Brandon was released from juvenile detention, he promised his mother he would stay out of trouble. Now at 19, he’s enrolled in American River College and has never been arrested again.

Brandon was booked for possession of marijuana two years ago when he was still a minor. Yet, today’s youth are not only being booked less often than previous years, but also less often than their parents’ generation.

In Males’ report, California’s middle-aged population—generally those who are parents of teenagers—has experienced large increases in drug abuse and criminal arrests between 1995 and 2010.

Brandon's mother, an alcoholic, was booked on DUI charges shortly before his arrest.

“Things were really hard at home, and I couldn’t concentrate,” he said.  His mother began drinking as her financial problems worsened, and Brandon began experimenting more with drugs.

“I knew it was wrong, but I just needed to get away from everything and I thought it would help,” he said.

While Brandon has cleaned up and avoided the inside of a jail cell, his mother continues to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. Brandon's experience is not unusual. Males said this may be one of the most dramatic changes in the age structure of crime ever documented.

For Californians ages 40 to 59, felony arrests have increased from 70,000 to 103,000. During the same period of time, youth arrests were nearly cut in half to 43,000.

“The problem is this juvenile crime drop has not been talked about,” Males concluded. “We have to start changing the whole way we think about criminal offending by age. I think we have to stop talking about youth as a crime-prone population.”

[Editor's note: Brandon's full name was not used because he did not want details of his arrest as a juvenile made public.]

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