Since 1996, the nationwide juvenile arrest rate has been in steady decline according to Department of Justice statistics. California largely followed national trends, but in the last years of the 20th century, California enacted harsher sentences to combat “out of control” youth and launched a detention center building boom.
“We were locking up youth at an alarming rate,” said Ventura County probation officer Mark Varela. “We just figured this was going to be a building that was going to fulfill our needs for quite a number of years in the future.”
But it wasn’t. In spite of the investments in detention centers and stricter penalties of juvenile offenders, in spite of 17 percent of California schools being staffed with police officers (which takes school discipline from after-school detention to criminal detention centers), the overall arrest rate of youth in California plummeted.
Between 1980 and 2016 nationwide youth arrests dropped by 62 percent, but in California that decline was even more pronounced: Arrest rates for juveniles dropped by 84 percent. For comparison, California’s arrest rate for adults over 50 dropped only 9 percent over the same period of time.
Of the in 39 counties in California that have juvenile detention facilities, the facilities were less than half full, according to reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle. Some were nearly empty.
“It’s really the opposite of what we thought it would be,” said Varela. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads over what we’re going to do with all the extra space.”
Though there is a sentiment that these statistics are too good to be true and the youth arrest rate would eventually rise to justify the jail building boom.
“In my heart of hearts I never believed that any child could be born to be a super-predator,” said San Francisco juvenile probation officer Allen Nance. “But I clearly saw the behavior that led so many people to that belief — very scary behavior, very dangerous behavior. Twelve- and 13-year-olds who are committing homicide and not demonstrating one iota of remorse.”
“We’re still holding our breath,” he said.
That racist phrase Nance used, super-predator, comes from the peak of juvenile arrests in 1995, where criminologist John DiIulio made the prediction of a rise in “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” young, violent criminals. This obviously didn’t happen. Despite being literally the opposite of reality, the mythology of the rise of super-predators created a panic that drove the extreme sentencing and, likely, rush to construct juvenile detention facilities.
Though somewhat transformed, that myth still exists today. California has relentlessly pursued the myth that teenagers committing crime are hardened sociopaths that are beyond reformation, with no real success.
And the likelihood of change seems slim.
“Too often we find ways to fill the prisons,” said criminologist Jay Albanese. “I’m worried about whether that vacuum gets filled with another crime problem, real or imagined.”
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.