California's County-By-County Youth Crime Trends Defy Conventional Theory

Earlier this week, CJCJ launched its California juvenile justice interactive map, displaying a plethora of data regarding local youth arrest and confinement practices by county. This is particularly pertinent given that California’s statewide trends are so extraordinary: Youth crime in California is at its lowest level since statewide statistics were first compiled in 1954.

The county-by-county data paint a more nuanced picture of juvenile justice in California. Among its 58 counties, the application of juvenile justice policy is radically varied, and with mixed results.

For example, San Francisco County has the highest youth arrest rate in the state, due primarily to the fact that San Francisco is the only county comprised wholly of a city. Most arrests involve youth of color from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Despite high rates of violent crime, the county utilizes confinement infrequently, displaying very low levels of state youth correctional commitments and lower than average use of its local custodial facilities; 49% of beds in the county’s two juvenile justice facilities (juvenile hall + camp) were occupied in 2010. Driving this commitment to rehabilitate even the hardest-to-serve youth in the community is a wealth of nonprofit service providers and dedicated local government leadership.

On the other hand, semi-rural Kern County, also has a youth arrest rate higher than the state average, but a significantly higher than average reliance on confinement options. For example, while the county has a lower than average arrest rate for female youth, it has the highest reliance on state confinement for female youth offenders. Additionally, in 2010, 81% of its five local juvenile justice facilities were occupied. There could be many reasons for this dependence on state and local custodial options, including a lack of community-based resources and gender-responsive programming, political imperatives, and economic considerations.

When compared, the two counties share similarities; approximately 47% of both juvenile justice populations have diagnosed mental health needs. There are also differences; 16% more of Kern’s youth live below federal poverty guidelines. A major difference is the fiscal ramifications of their use of confinement. Compared to the state average, San Francisco’s low state confinement rate saves taxpayers approximately $4,000 per youth felony arrest, versus Kern’s high rate costing taxpayers an additional $9,400.

Perhaps the most important measure of these two approaches is the public safety benefits they confer. San Francisco pulls ahead on this score too, with an 18% decrease in youth crime from 2009 to 2010, including a 36% decline in violent youth crime; Kern experienced a 1% drop in overall youth crime and a 15% increase in violent crime.

Understanding these county and statewide trends will be important to policymakers, practitioners, and communities, as California continues to reform its youth correctional system with an eye towards investing in effective, long-term, cost-efficient interventions. While the reasons for these county disparities remain nuanced and ambiguous, it is clear that high rates of incarceration are not necessary to ensure public safety.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

juvenile-justice-reform_Selena-TejiSelena Teji is the Communications Specialist for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco, CA. She has a Juris Doctorate specializing in international law from UC Hastings, and has expertise in data-driven juvenile and criminal justice policy analysis in California.

Updated: February 08 2018