Crime & Justice

Study: Juvenile population in California prisons drops dramatically, but percentage of minorities still high

Minors incarcerated at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.
Minors incarcerated at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

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The number of children incarcerated in secured, locked facilities across the U.S. went down 41 percent between 2001 and 2011. But not all groups of children benefited equally from the drop, according to a new study.

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that while the total number of kids incarcerated dropped, the percentage behind bars who are minorities rose.

"We are concerned that the changes that have occurred aren't benefiting youth of color the same way," said Angela Irvine, research director at NCCD.

California's de-incarceration of youth has been particularly dramatic. The number of kids in the state's Division of Juvenile Justice went from 10,000 to 800 in a little over a decade – a direct result of SB 81, 2007's juvenile justice realignment, which made counties responsible for dealing with most youthful offenders.

In 2003, DJJ (then known as the California Youth Authority) had about 4,600 inmates, 84 percent of whom identified as non-white. In 2013, the DJJ had about 680 inmates, about 91 percent of them non-white.

Irvine said that studies show children of different ethnicities engage in similar behavior. She theorizes that some sort of bias may be responsible for more minority children being arrested, prosecuted, and given harsher sentences.

The researcher also thinks a lack of organizations that offer remedial programs to youth in their own communities might be to blame.

When SB81 passed, it came to the counties with millions of dollars in funding to handle juvenile offenders.

Irvine said a review of the past three fiscal years of SB 81 spending showed about 3 percent spent on community organizations to administer programs, while the rest remained with local probation departments, which generally focus on more traditional punishment. 

"I think all youth benefit from being linked to community organizations that understand their experience," Irvine said. "We would love to see new legislation passed to see that money gets to community based organizations."