Youth Prisons Don't Deter Crime - Juvenile Lockups Low, as are Offenses

June 29, 2006
By Scott Smith

The Stockton Record

Locking up juveniles and adults in state prisons doesn't necessarily make California communities safer, according to researchers who released a study Wednesday that debunks the common thought driving criminal justice policy.

Adult prison populations are buckling under all-time high numbers, while crime rates among adults continue to grow. But juvenile crime and the number of youth prisoners have dropped, said researchers for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in a Capitol news conference.

If it is true that locking people up reduces crime, youth street crime should have risen and adult crime should have fallen, said Dan Macallair, the agency's executive director, urging lawmakers to consider alternatives to criminal justice. "Continuing down the same path of spending billions of dollars to build more prisons is the wrong thing to do," Macallair said. "We have to look at what's going on."

The study also found that San Joaquin County experienced the greatest decline in the number of youthful offenders sent to juvenile prisons in comparison with the state's biggest counties.

A videotaped brawl in 2004 between two wards and two staffers inside the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility near Stockton led the public to realize there are problems inside the state's youth prisons, said Dennise Henderson, a deputy San Joaquin County public defender.

Unfortunately, the public's attention to those same problems has begun to dwindle. Those numbers may begin to surge back up, she said.

"It's off the radar screen, and people think things are fixed," Henderson said.

Macallair's report counters a proposal Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Monday to build two more prisons in an attempt to curb California's high recidivism rate and increasingly crowded prisons.

Macallair said he could not explain the findings, like those that show a decline in youth crimes and incarceration numbers.

"If anyone tells you they know what's happening, they don't know what they're talking about," Macallair said.

Researchers outlined their findings in a 14-page study based on a review of the state's prison population reports and crime trends since 1960 for both adults and juveniles. The report found:

" The number of adult prison inmates has increased fivefold since 1980 to a current total of 170,000.

" The adult felony rate increased by 11 percent from 1980 to 2004.

" In the same time period, the rate of juvenile incarceration in California fell by nearly 50 percent to a current population of less than 3,000.

" Juvenile felony rates dropped by 58 percent in the same period.

Julio Calderon, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, declined to comment on the report.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said at the news conference that the report's numbers counter the idea that building more prisons prevents crime.

"It's time we start thinking outside the cellblocks," Leno said. "We need bold leadership - determined leadership."

Jakada Imani, director of the Oakland-based youth advocacy group Books Not Bars, said the safest communities are those with the highest number of residents working and going on to college and not being arrested and going to prison.

"The report says that state of California has wasted billions of dollars, adding damage to damage," Imani said.

State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, has pushed for reform of both the youth and adult prison systems and said in a written statement that she does not back building more prisons.

"Even if we built 10,000 new prison beds - which would not be ready for a few years - the prisons still would be at 190 percent capacity," she said. "The governor wants to literally build more boxes."