SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is a national leader in reducing the number of juvenile offenders incarcerated in state and county lockups, according to a study advocacy groups released Tuesday.
Driven by budget cuts, lawsuits and research, the state has taken steps that helped reduce the number of youths in correctional facilities by 41 percent between 2000 and 2010. Fewer than 9,800 youths were in state and county custody by 2010, down from a peak of 17,551 in 2000. The number continues to drop.
State juvenile centers hold just 724 of the most violent or predatory youth in three facilities, down from about 10,000 incarcerated by what was then the California Youth Authority during its peak more than a decade ago.
The report by the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation says California is one of nine states leading the nation in reducing youth incarceration. Its study focused on those ages 10 to 17.
Although tight budgets and court orders helped prompt the changes, the study credits California policymakers with recognizing that young offenders think and develop differently than adults and are more likely to benefit from rehabilitation programs. The drop also reflects a general reduction in crimes committed by youths.
“There's no question in California that the budget is certainly a big motivator. But California was a pioneer back in the mid-'90s with this kind of stuff,” Benjamin Chambers, who helped write the report for the National Juvenile Justice Network, said in a telephone interview. “There was a recognition that kids are different. … They're more likely to act impulsively compared to adults, and they're more likely to change.”
Policymakers reacted two decades ago to research that showed youth respond better to rehabilitation when they are close to their families and communities, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The state created financial incentives for counties to keep their youthful offenders in the community and gave counties millions of dollars to increase local incarceration and rehabilitation programs as an alternative to sending them to crowded state juvenile halls.
Lawmakers more recently limited counties to sending the state only those youths found to have committed violent, serious or sexual offenses. Both state and county programs have concentrated on trying to change the way young criminals think and react before it is too late, said Sessa, who had not seen the study released Tuesday.
“There's really been, particularly in these nine states, a shift away from saying, 'Let's just lock up these youths and throw away the key,'” Marc Levin, director of the Texas foundation's Center for Effective Justice, said in a telephone interview.
In addition to California, the report credited Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin with adopting policies that helped reduce the incarceration of young people.
Levin said his conservative-leaning foundation has worked periodically with more liberal advocacy groups to promote reforms that have found wide acceptance across the political spectrum.