|Ventura County Star
arrests decline 44% in county
August 6, 2006
When Ventura County officials set out to design the new Steven Z.
Perren Juvenile Justice Complex, which broke ground in 2001 in El
Rio, Chief Probation Officer Cal Remington said criminal justice
experts had one common piece of advice: Build it as big as you can.
the end, the juvenile hall in the $65 million complex opened in 2003
with 420 beds.
"We wanted to build for the future,"
Remington said. "The consultants told us we'd need that many beds
and that we'd be filled to capacity by 2010."
"This is a conservative county," Chief
Probation Officer Cal Remington
The experts projected that by 2006
the facility would be housing about 360 juvenile offenders, fast
headed for capacity.
They were wrong.
In the summer of 2006, the facility
remains half empty. The average daily population fluctuates from 205
to 215. There are plenty of rooms but not enough juvenile
delinquents to fill them.
isn't because the system has become more permissive, Remington said.
"This is a conservative county. If kids were screwing up more,
they'd be locked up more."
The reason there's plenty of room at
juvenile hall is this simple: Fewer kids are committing crimes.
In Ventura County, in California,
across the nation, the incidence of violent juvenile crime, which
peaked in the mid-1990s, is now as low as it's been since the early
The grave predictions of sociologists
in the mid-'90s, who forecast a growing class of "superpredator"
teenagers, who would menace society and fill youth prisons, have not
come to pass. In California, juvenile halls have a collective
surplus of more than 1,200 beds, and the number of teens committed
to the state's youth prisons the so-called "worst of the worst"
has fallen from almost 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 3,000 today.
16-year-old Oxnard resident identified
as Danny, paints a pottery piece at the
Aftercare Day Reporting program
Statewide, the Department of Justice
reports, the number of teenagers arrested for property crimes is
less than half of what it was when the early baby boomers first
started tuning in to the Beatles: 571 per 100,000 youngsters in
2004, compared with 1,343 in the period from 1960 through 1964.
'Better than their parents'
In Ventura County, the rate of
juvenile felony arrests has dropped 44 percent since the peak year
of 1995, down to 928 per 100,000 teens from 1,650.
"There's a story to tell that's just
as positive as could be," said Remington. "It's quite amazing."
It's a difficult story to tell,
because it flies in the face of public perceptions. The TV and
newspapers may report daily on youth gang activities, some kids may
play violent video games and wear rings and studs in their noses,
but the fact is today's teenagers just aren't committing crimes at
the same rate as generations that came before.
"Kids today are better than their
parents," said Melissa Sickmund, a researcher for the
Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, which
compiles mountains of data on juvenile crime. "Every generation of
adults seems to want to think that its kids are the worst ever, and
it's almost never true."
To be sure, the picture of youth
crime is not entirely rosy. Recent FBI statistics suggest the
downward trend has bottomed out in some urban areas. In California,
although the number of juveniles arrested for homicides, robberies
and burglaries has plummeted, arrests for sexual offenses and
weapons charges have continued at about the same pace as a decade
ago. Criminal offenses by girls, although still a fraction of those
committed by boys, also have remained basically the same over the
past 10 years.
Also, youth gangs remain a serious
public safety concern just about everywhere.
But the big picture is clear:
Something good has happened.
Decline surprises researchers
In June, the Oakland-based Center on
Juvenile and Criminal Justice issued a report that dramatically
detailed the decline of youth crime in California. Among its major
findings: From 1980 to 2004, juvenile felony rates dropped 58
percent, the juvenile incarceration rate fell 50 percent, and on a
per-capita basis the population of incarcerated youth is a third of
what it was in 1959.
Megan Corcoran, spokeswoman for the
center, said researchers were surprised at the magnitude of
improvement they found. The next step, she said, is to try to
"We didn't want to try to figure out
what was going on," she said. "We just wanted to get the numbers out
into the debate, because these numbers mean something. There's
something going right."
Criminal justice policy experts say
they believe that any number of factors has contributed, largely
because a decade ago any number of attempts was taken to combat the
alarming rate of youth crime.
"Epidemiologists use the term
'tipping point' to describe how an illness spreads to become an
epidemic," said Sickmund of the National Center for Juvenile
Justice. "Something happens, it reaches a tipping point and then, oh
my God, I think it's the same thing with juvenile crime. There was
not any one thing that happened after it reached a tipping point but
an accumulation of things."
Early intervention programs
Over the past decade, many states
passed laws to make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults,
including California's Proposition 61 approved by voters in 2000.
Many states, including California, boosted funding for early
intervention programs and other proven crime-prevention strategies.
School officials became more sensitive to concerns about youth
violence and began working more closely with law enforcement. Some
parents began asking tougher questions about what their kids were up
"Part of the stuff that changed was
people's behavior," Sickmund said. "If everybody's fearful, they
Ventura County District Attorney Greg
Totten said he believes public policy had a lot to do with turning
Early intervention programs, he said,
have targeted counseling, drug-treatment, family education and other
services at teens who once might not have drawn the serious
attention of authorities until they were well on the road toward
committing more and more serious crimes.
"Kids who are committing crimes are
getting into the juvenile justice system sooner than they used to,"
Totten said. "It used to be that kids were cycling in and out of the
informal system before they ever found a judge."
Totten said school officials also
have become appreciably more focused on juvenile crime issues.
"When I started as a prosecutor,
there wasn't a lot of communication between school districts and the
DA's Office or police agencies," he said. "We're working more as
Jason Ziedenberg, executive director
of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, credits much
of California's progress to two policy decisions: the creation and
funding of an ongoing, large-scale juvenile crime prevention program
in 2000 and a budget-driven decision by the Legislature in 1996 to
charge counties a sliding-scale fee to house offenders in state
youth prisons. The less serious the offense, the higher the fee.
Forcing counties to get smart
The sliding-scale fees, Ziedenberg
said, forced counties to get smart about treating low-level juvenile
offenders. Before the change in law, counties paid a flat $25 a
month to the state to house juveniles in what was then the
California Youth Authority. The new law now charges counties $150 a
month to send a convicted murderer or armed robber to state youth
prison, $1,300 a month for a teen who broke into a house, $1,950 for
one who got into a serious fight, and $2,600 a month for a young
person who has been convicted of only a misdemeanor.
"The disincentive made a big
difference," Ziedenberg said. "Once you started charging, it allowed
for a more appropriate level of custody ... and when you provide
young people with the kinds of services they need education,
counseling, drug treatment, recreational programs they will
improve. Institutionalizing them doesn't make them better; it makes
Reducing youth crime
The Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention
Act has annually provided counties with $100 million it has been
boosted to $119 million this year to implement programs to reduce
youth crime. It requires detailed goals and annual reports to the
Legislature on the effectiveness of county programs. Ventura County
receives about $2.5 million annually through the act.
The most recent report reveals more
than 43,000 teens receive services from programs funded by the act.
About 60 percent of them already are under control of the courts; 40
percent are those who have been identified as being at risk of
entering the juvenile justice system.
Probation officials report about
two-thirds of the county programs have met goals for reducing arrest
rates, improving the rate of juveniles completing probation and
improving payments of restitution.
Remington said the most significant
change in Ventura County has been a heightened level of attention
devoted to very young, first-time offenders. Last year, 650 Ventura
County children 14 or younger were placed on probation and closely
monitored under the program.
"Our approach had been to say, 'The
kid's 10 or 11. This is a family problem, not a criminal justice
problem,' " he said. "Now, with early intervention, if a kid is
referred, it's not seen as a weird, episodic thing. It's a red flag.
... We can deliver a lot of services to a kid at the time of his
first petition, and that cuts down on serious, habitual offenders."
Youth prison system in crisis
The paradox in California is that at
the same time the juvenile crime rate has fallen and county
probation officials are reporting successes, the state's youth
prison system is in crisis.
The Division of Juvenile Justice,
formerly known as the California Youth Authority, is so plagued with
problems of abuse and mistreatment of wards that it is now
functioning under a court-supervised agreement to move back toward
its historic mission of rehabilitation. Saying the critics were
right, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to the plan in November
2004 to settle a lawsuit alleging cruel and abusive practices at
Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy
Institute called it "counterintuitive" that the state has been able
to reduce juvenile crime despite the problems at Juvenile Justice.
"So much has been said about the CYA,
and it's all true," he said, "but the happy coincidence is that
these two programs (sliding-scale fees and prevention programs) have
diverted a lot of kids away from those institutions."
Remington is reluctant to credit
county probation departments and the state programs for the downturn
in juvenile crime. "It's probably the result of a zillion factors,"
he said, "but I'm hoping that we've had a real influence."
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