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The Unmaking of a Justice System

Juvenile arrests and detentions are down across the entire state. But don't assume that's because youth crime has been reduced.

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By the late 1980s, Alameda County's 299-bed juvenile hall was structurally and functionally antiquated. Built in 1953, atop portions of the Hayward Fault, there were concerns about the San Leandro facility's seismic safety. Institutions of that era also weren't designed to accommodate the programs and services subsequently developed to treat young offenders. Momentum to build a new juvenile hall grew when a 1997 California Board of Corrections report described the facility as "inadequate and insufficient." Eventually, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a new 540-bed facility across from Dublin's Santa Rita jail. Then youth-justice activists got wind of the proposal.

The activists objected to the location of the proposed facility and also to its enlargement. Organizers and youths from Books Not Bars and the Youth Force Coalition stormed meetings of the county Board of Supervisors and the California Board of Corrections, waving posters, staging a sit-in, and chanting slogans such as "Schools, Not Jails" and "Derail the Superjail." They condemned the proposal as a racist policy of "lock 'em up and throw away the key," and cited statistics showing that California already locked up a higher percentage of its youth than any other state in the country. They also noted that Dublin's distance from Oakland, home to a disproportionate share of the youths detained at juvenile hall, would make it difficult or impossible for many families to visit their children.

The most compelling argument against enlarging the facility was the assertion that juvenile crime was going down. "Juvenile crime was clearly ... on decline," said Books Not Bars campaign director Jakada "J" Imani. "But there was this idea that there will be more youth of color at some point, and therefore you need bigger juvenile halls and not bigger schools." A 2002 report issued by several activist groups pointed to a steady statewide decline in youth arrest rates between 1994 and 1998. "This expansion is being driven not by a tide of youth crime, but by punitive policy decisions," the report said.

The activists' campaign paid off. After first agreeing to build a slightly smaller facility in Dublin, the Board of Supervisors relented on both points in 2003, agreeing to build a hall little larger than the current facility at the existing site in San Leandro. Construction is currently under way, and the new hall is expected to be completed next April.

Three years later, juvenile arrest rates tell a story, but it may not be one of decreased juvenile crime.

Last July, police in Oakland abandoned their longtime method of processing juveniles — resulting in fewer arrests, reduced intervention services, and a generally unengaged attitude toward youth crime. Generally speaking, juvenile offenders aren't being rehabilitated or punished.

Not surprisingly, crime is on the rise. There has been an overall increase in juvenile violence, according to Oakland Police spokesman Roland Holmgren. And prosecutors say most adult criminals have juvenile histories.

As of November 13, the number of homicides in Oakland was 132, the highest number in ten years. According to the city's crime analysis unit, at least 25 victims were juveniles, the youngest of whom was only fourteen years old. In a September report, the Alameda County Public Health Department noted that fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds have the second-highest homicide rate in Oakland after twenty- to 24-year-olds. Murders also have spiked in other Bay Area cities such as Richmond and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the number of reported robberies and burglaries has been steadily increasing since 2000, except for a dip in 2004. Robberies increased from 1,929 in 2000 to 2,338 as of October 25, while burglaries jumped from 3,506 to 6,349 in the same period. "We used to rarely see a case where a juvenile would commit a robbery against an adult," said Matt Golde, who runs the juvenile division of the Alameda District Attorney's office. "That was a little bit alarming. ... That now is sport; it's every day." The vast majority of these robberies are by juveniles, Oakland Police Lieutenant Kevin Wiley noted: "Juvenile crime has always been off the hook, but it's more off the hook."

Yet just as youth crime appears to be growing more severe, the Alameda County Probation Department has slashed the number of kids it is holding in juvenile hall — typically detaining only the worst offenders. Meanwhile, all across California, counties have drastically reduced the number of juvenile offenders they are sending to the eight youth prisons run by the Division of Juvenile Justice.

While it is not clear why these changes are occurring simultaneously, a combination of demographic changes, new attitudes toward institutionalization, loss of faith in the juvenile prison system, and budget problems within law enforcement have contributed to a worsening of youth crime just as government agencies are dedicating fewer resources to the problem.


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