In a man-bites-dog moment, adults could learn something from kids. Or at least that might be true for the criminal justice system that treats adults can learn from the last decade’s worth of lessons since the state realigned juvenile detention systems to the counties. The success rate in the last decade has been impressive: populations have decreased by 88% statewide since 1996, with no subsequent increase in youth crime rates.

In the early 1990s, Counties were forced to localize youth offenders by a Sacramento-sanctioned program that subsidized the costs of incarcerating youths only for the most serious crimes. Those who were sent to state facilities for lesser crimes had their custodial costs charged to the counties. That helped reduce the prison populations and encouraged intervention and treatment programs.

Not every program has been a success, and the failures may prove to be even more valuable lessons. For example, Counties sometimes engaged in risk assessments instead of direct intervention, or used boot camps and scared straight programs. However, addressing the specific needs of the individuals in custody always resulted in improved performance.


Michael Bryant has been in and out of Juvenile Hall in Santa Cruz since he was 13 years old, when he started drinking alcohol everyday. Now 17, Bryant is doing time in a treatment center after plea-bargaining on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

Some counties would have viewed this crime as a second strike and sent Bryant to a state facility. But Santa Cruz rarely sends youth to the state for supervision. In part, that’s because the county is a participant in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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