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Youth Incarceration Rates Still High In California

Youth Incarceration Rates Still High In California

A report released Wednesday suggests there's a sea change in the way the nation handles juvenile crime. The number of kids behind bars has decreased more than 40 percent since 1995. San Diego rates are also trending down.

Youth Incarceration Rates Still High In California
GUESTS:Michele Linley, Deputy District Attorney, County of San Diego, Juvenile DivisionChief Mack Jenkins, Chief of Probation, San Diego County Bridget Lambert, Community Education and Outreach Coordinator, National Conflict Resolution Center

ST. JOHN: Today on Midday Edition, a report released just today suggests that there is a sea change taking place in this country about how to handle young people who get into trouble with the law. In 1995, more than 100,000 youth were locked up behind years on any given day. That number has declined by more than 40%. In California, we're still among the top-10 states in terms of our rates of juvenile incarceration. Juvenile arrests are declining, and there's a major effort underway to divert juveniles from prison. Mack Jenkins is chief of the Probation Department, thanks for coming in. JENKINS: Very happy to be here. ST. JOHN: Michele Linley who is the chief of the juvenile division in the District Attorney's Office. LINLEY: Thank you for having me join you. ST. JOHN: Thank you. And Bridget Lambert, with the national conflict resolution center, working with the wellness and restorative practices project in City Heights. Thank you for coming in. LAMBERT: Thanks for having me. ST. JOHN: Mack, this kids count report paints a bleak picture about juvenile incarceration. What did you take away from the report? JENKINS: Well, I thought it was interesting. But it also reflects what we've seen both nationally and here locally, what's happened with kids going into custody. And that is that both have declined. But the report when it talked about California having one of the higher rates, I think it's important the public to understand that California as a state has already almost gotten out of the business of incarcerating youth at the state level. The state operates its own system. It used to be called CNA. Now we call it the division of juvenile yesterday. And 10 years ago, there were 12,000 youth incarcerated. Today that is only about 1,000. So the state had already begun a juvenile realignment. So that report must be talking about the different county so that's 17 applications of a juvenile justice system. In San Diego, because we've really been out in front, if I may, on diversion service, justice system collaboration with community partners over a 4-year period from 2007 to 2011, the Probation Department saw a 44% decline in the number of youth referred to probation. And over the same time frame, a 22% decline in the number of youth being placed on probation. ST. JOHN: Michele, you're a gatekeeper I think, right? Juveniles come through your department before it's decided what happens next. What are the trends that you're seeing in terms of what happens next for a person who's arrested? LINLEY: Well, we've seen cases being referred to us, the numbers have been dropping since 2011. But in addition, the juvenile system is a little different in that there's a bunch of different places where probation actually makes the determination whether a minor goes into court or not. There are cases where the DA does not decide. We may charge a case, but it will be up to probation to decide whether the minor goes to court or whether they use one of the many diversion programs available to them. ST. JOHN: So Mack, from your perspective, does that mean there's more work falling on your shoulders because they're not going to juvenile hall? JENKINS: No, it's not something that means more work. It's actually a design in the system, what she's talking about. In the juvenile system, probation's role is designed to be a screener as it were. ST. JOHN: Okay. JENKINS: Just because a child might have a police contact, might even be arrested, doesn't necessarily mean that child will end up in custody. Here in San Diego County, fewer than 20% of all of the youth on probation ever spend any time in custody. We have roughly 3,600 youth on probation in the county right now. Right now, this morning, we have less than 500. ST. JOHN: One of our producers figured out that in one year, there were more than 800,R has that dropped since last year? JENKINS: Well, that figure may have been an average over a period of time. But the fact is that there has -- those figures are trending down. ST. JOHN: You Michele, according to the figures from SANDAG, in 2011 there were almost 2,000 juveniles arrested for violent crime, and that was down from 2,800, five years earlier. What do you attribute this to? The way the system is operating or are kids just being less violent? LINLEY: Well, I think right now we have a very good collaboration between our community partners, probation, and the District Attorney's Office. We're all involved in community-based organizations and work closely with them. Our diversion programs are extensive here in San Diego, and I would credit the preventative work happening with probation and the community-based organizations as helping to reduce those numbers. ST. JOHN: So divisionary programs, that's where, Bridget, you come in. LAMBERT: Yes. ST. JOHN: What are the rates of incarceration? When a kid gets locked up, what does that mean for kids and families in your neighborhood? LAMBERT: Well, it's traumatic. It really does -- it adds additional stresses to the family and really makes it harder for the kids as well. ST. JOHN: So tell us about the kind of programs that you're working with to avoid that. LAMBERT: Well, with the wellness and restorative practice partnership, we're providing a post-arrest diversion program where we would bring the juvenile offender and person affected by their actions into a conference to give an opportunity first and foremost for the victim to have an opportunity to explain how the actions by the juvenile impacted their lives. And through that process, it's a learning curve for the youth, right? So they're building empathy and understanding the consequences of their actions more, which tends to lead to the better choices in the future. ST. JOHN: That sounds so interesting to bring a victim and an offender together. Is this a program that's been tried in other cities? How is it working? LAMBERT: Yes, there are definitely successful programs throughout the country. Actually throughout the world. And most recently I was able to learn about the one in Alameda County where they have had successful partnerships with probation and the Courts and the District Attorney's Office as well as some police departments to bring restorative justice to the community. ST. JOHN: Restorative justice. Now, does that work better with some young offenders than others? Are there places where it really works and others where it really isn't a solution? LAMBERT: Definitely. You want an offender that's going to accept responsibility for their act and be accountable and be willing to restore the harm that they've cost. ST. JOHN: How many young people are involved in this? I almost want to ask you to tell us -- give us an example of a case where you've seen this working. LAMBERT: Well, we have had -- because our program is set up at a real early stage in the process, it's post-arrest but pre-adjudication, there haven't been too many cases that we've actually brought to conference. ST. JOHN: So it's pretty new, this program? LAMBERT: Yes. ST. JOHN: It's very much an experimental thing but all part of this trend of trying to divert children. LAMBERT: Right, yeah. ST. JOHN: What age are we talking about here? JENKINS: Well, we would be talking about those kids who are at rest to come into the juvenile justice system. I would suggest that a younger age of 12 all the way up to 17 years old. And restorative justice is an effective diversionary practice that has been applied as Bridgette just said in other jurisdictions both in California and around the nation. So we look forward to the growth of that program as a part of a myriad of divisionary programs that you also heard Michele talk about that have contributed to that 44% decline of youth even being referred to probation but also the 22% decline of kids placed on probation. So programs like that help reduce those outcomes am ST. JOHN: Talk a little bit about team court, Michele. Is that something that you have much to do with? LINLEY: Teen court is a program, there are certain cases that are taken from the community and rather than prosecution they are handled through that court with prosecutors and defense attorneys and the jury basically being their peers. ST. JOHN: Okay. Is that something you're involved with, Bridget? LAMBERT: I've been on the campus at Crawford. Is that the program that -- the professor is in charge of. And I've never actually seen it in process, but I understand that oftentimes the peers are actually more punitive than they would experience in a traditional setting. ST. JOHN: Wow! [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: I guess the question is, do they offend again? LAMBERT: Right. ST. JOHN: According to what SANDAG was saying, 94% of participants did not reoffend one year later, but more than half of those were for very low-level crimes like loitering and curfew violations. Would you say that some of these methods work better with the lower level crimes? LINLEY: That's the case. And whenever you're intervening at that level, that's someone who's not going to move on through the justice system. JENKINS: Right. LINLEY: It's rare you're going to see somebody that starts committing a very violent crime. So every time we address whatever issues are happening within the family and the community and with that minor or juvenile at that level, we are going to be stopping a chain that could lead it a more serious crime or more serious pattern. JENKINS: One of the things we've learned from research, most kids that touch the juvenile justice system touch it one time and never come back. There's a smaller percentage, around 22% that may come into the system a couple of times. And there's the smallest percentage that absent effective intervention will become what we call chronic delinquents the whole point of effective early intervention and diversion programs is to do that sifting, full, so we don't over-incarcerate or over-treat a lower level child and don't do things more harshly with them than need be. ST. JOHN: So what would you say from your experience seeing a lot of juveniles coming through are the most effective strategies in San Diego that are being tried now to avoid locking a kid up? LINLEY: Well, we have wonderful diversion programs through a lot of our community organizations am ST. JOHN: Now, schedules are a big part of that, right? LINLEY: Absolutely. And the District Attorney's Office has a truancy interference program in conjunction with the Courts and probation where we do a truancy diversionary court. And one of our deputy district attorneys work closely with the schools, helping the pre-filing of cases, making sure we have all the services available to help them to break this truancy cycle. And without the help of probation in this court, we would not be nearly as successful but have had some very good outcomes from that program. ST. JOHN: You're nodding there, Bridgette. Are you involved with schools at all? LAMBERT: Not too much. We're looking toward that it's a long process. ST. JOHN: Okay. It looks like the amount of young people who are going to jail or juvenile hall is going down. But is that result of all these programs or is that as a result of this trend in our nation where crime does seem to be going down? JENKINS: I think it's a combination. We have seen juvenile crime trending down, nationally and locally. But I also believe that it is a product of these efforts that we're here talking about. We are trying to make an effort to identify those kids who will be responsive to early diversion efforts. One of the products we have seen in the Probation Department is that those youth who do end up coming to probation after the screening process from our assessment process are at a higher risk to commit another crime and their needs are more intense. Michele talked about the truancy program which has been very successful. There's a nexus to truancy or poor school attendance and chronic delinquency. So that program is so important in identifying those kids early and trying to give them some effective efforts because that can shortcut the otherwise path to crime. ST. JOHN: Catch it at the beginning. I guess the question is do you have the resources? A lot of this is being stimulated by the fact that the state budget and all budgets are being stretched. And so locking somebody up is really the most in-- least cost-effective way of dealing with this whole -- would you agree with that? JENKINS: I would. The qualifier I would put on it is most juveniles don't get locked up. It's less than 20% locally, and that's a national figure as well. So you want to make sure that those youth who do end up spending some time in incarceration are the ones who really need that level of care. ST. JOHN: I see, right JENKINS: And for the Probation Department, as Michele described earlier, we're one of the screeners for even that. We follow a strict criteria outlined in the California welfare and institutions code, to make sure those kids booked into juvenile hall need to be. ST. JOHN: The focus has been on adults, hasn't it, in realignment? JENKINS: Well, it's interesting that you should -- I appreciate that. What we're now dealing WAB109, public safety realignment on the adult side. But that was preceded by a juvenile realignment in a bill called SB81. A lot of people forget that. That was signed into law in 2007. And that was one of the first shifts of kids who used to go to state custody that now are managed here locally, and we've been doing that here in San Diego since 2007 with success. ST. JOHN: Well, we just have a minute left. So I want to throw it -- perhaps each of you can say quickly in a couple of sentences what you think needs to happen to keep this trend moving along so fewer kids end up behind bars. Bridgette? LAMBERT: Well, I think that early intervention strategies and diversion programs have proven their worth, and I hope that we continue to build public support for those. ST. JOHN: Thank you. Mack? JENKINS: I would agree. The collaboration just building on it between the justice partners and the community, with a good assessment process employing what we call evidence-based practices to identify the kids who come into the system and then getting them to tan appropriate level of care. That will also identify those kids who need effective intervention services and will help us try and link them to services they need to reduce their stay. ST. JOHN: And from the DA's perspective? LINLEY: We definitely need to keep those prevention dollars and programs in place. Of that's a where we tend to have a tendency to cut. But the youth involved, adults involved in the system, and the community at large.

Youth Incarceration Rates Still High In California
A report released Wednesday suggests there's a change in the way the nation handles juvenile crime. The number of kids behind bars has decreased more than 40 percent since 1995. San Diego rates are also trending down, but there's still a growing conversation in San Diego about ways to divert kids out of the criminal justice system.

Youth Incarceration
Reducing Youth Incarceration: Kids Count - Data Snapshot The Annie E. Casey Foundation
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

But the United States still leads the industrialized world in the rate at which it locks up youth. California is among the top 12 states for youth incarceration, with a rate of 271 per 100,000 young people.


The report, which was put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and advocacy group Children Now, covers all youth under 21 in detention in prisons and group homes.

San Diego County Probation Chief Mack Jenkins said only about 1,000 youth inmates are under state supervision – the rest are supervised at the county level.

In San Diego, 688 teens are in custody at the county's five juvenile facilities, compared to 3,600 who are out in the community on probation. Jenkins said just 20 percent of the youth who end up in the county's juvenile justice system are put behind bars.

"We follow very strict criteria that's outlined in the California Welfare Institutions Code," Jenkins said. "And we have a screening tool that we employ to make sure that only those kids who need to be are ever booked into juvenile hall."

Despite the downward trend in youth incarceration, some San Diego residents remain concerned.


African-American and Latino teens are still overrepresented in juvenile detention facilities. That's a big issue for the diverse neighborhood of City Heights.

There, residents involved with community nonprofit Mid-City CAN and the Wellness and Restorative Practices Partnership are trying to bottleneck what they call the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

"Unfortunately, it starts with one arrest, but it soon generates into a pipeline and it eliminates a lot of opportunities for these kids," said Bridget Lambert, an outreach coordinator for the National Conflict Resolution Center. "If we can catch it at this early stage, it gives them this opportunity to get out of the pipeline."

Lambert is working with community members and law enforcement on a pilot program that catches youth post-arrest.

The strategy is called restorative conferencing. Instead of getting their sentence from a judge, youth who commit non-violent crimes have the opportunity to meet with their victim – the owner of the car they broke into or the principal of the school they tagged.

The victim, the offender and a mediator then decide on the punishment – something like community service or anger management classes. If the teen complies, his or her record is cleared.

Lambert said she's had five cases referred to the program, which got off the ground last year.

On the other side of City Heights, Mid-City CAN resident leader Deko Hussein is working on a similar pilot program. It intervenes when youth enter the court system.

"It's knowing that I did something to someone, rather than just, 'Hey, a prosecutor puts me in jail and at the end of the day, I'm just waiting to get out of jail and do the same crime again,'" said Hussein, a San Diego State University student.

Her group is working with the county's probation and district attorney's offices.

Probation Chief Jenkins said he supports the effort. He credits similar diversionary programs such as Teen Court, which employs students to prosecute and sentence their classmates, with recent declines in the number of youth offenders coming through his doors.

"We've really been out in front, if I may, on the issue of early intervention and diversion from a justice system collaboration, as well as community partners," Jenkins said.

But Jenkins said there are some youth who won't benefit from diversion programs and need to be in custody.

Both Hussein and Lambert said their approach isn't too soft on crime, but actually more effective than traditional courses of action.

"We're not saying that kids don't need to be punished, they don't need to be held responsible for something that they've done," Hussein said. "But we're saying that the method of just punishing a kid has been tried and it's not working. It's not working because recidivism rates are really high."

In 2011, 31 percent of youth on probation in San Diego County reoffended. Restorative conferencing programs throughout the nation report recidivism rates in the single digits.

Corrected: June 17, 2024 at 6:45 AM PDT
KPBS' Alison St John, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this story.
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