For a few days in August, Marin County Juvenile Hall was the center of a media firestorm, when at least two people tried to break into the Lucas Valley facility, apparently in a failed attempt to break out Max Wade, the teen accused of a drive-by shooting in April and of stealing celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s Lamborghini in 2011.
But while Wade was housed on the other side of the wall that the suspects allegedly tried to break down with a sledgehammer, they just as easily could’ve encountered an empty cell.
That’s because Juvenile Hall is at its lowest population in recent history, both in overall bookings and average daily population. The hall is projected to have 400 youths booked in 2012, down more than 40 percent from 688 bookings in 2007 and down nearly 30 percent from 588 bookings just two years ago, according to Marin County Probation Department data.
The average daily population at the facility is 13, down from 19 in 2011 and 24.7 in 2008.
“Everything is pointing down — our hall population has plummeted,” said Kevin Lynch, director of the Probation Department’s Juvenile Services Division. “This is the first time over a sustained period of time that it’s heading down.”
County leaders have taken note.
“I'm very pleased to see that Marin’s youth crime is at an all-time low,” said Judy Arnold, who represents Novato on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. “Our Probation Juvenile Division has worked very hard with law enforcement and schools to reach out to at-risk youth.”
Marin’s success matches a statewide trend documented in a new report from the California Sentencing Institute (CASI), which concludes that youth crime in California has plunged to an all-time low. The report includes data and interactive maps about rates of both adult and juvenile arrests and incarcerations from each of California's 58 counties.
The latest data for 2011 from the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center show arrests of youths under age 18 fell by 20 percent in California from 2010 to 2011, reaching their lowest level since statewide statistics were first compiled in 1954.
Lynch said that while he wishes there was a single driving force behind the decline in Marin, instead it is a confluence of a variety factors.
“I’m not absolutely certain what it might be — good enforcement, kids getting better, schools getting better — who knows?” he said. “It’s going to take a few more years for us to look back and say, ‘Ahh, that’s what it was.’”
Some of the factors are policy shifts, both within Marin and across the state. A statewide marijuana reform law, introduced by Marin's state Senator Mark Leno, went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011, reducing most simple marijuana possessions to an infraction involving a mere citation rather than criminal arrest. That reform reduced youth marijuana possession arrests by 61 percent statewide in one year, from nearly 15,000 in 2010 to 5,800 in 2011.
While that enforcement shift has had a great impact, Lynch said his department also shifted its handling of youth detention in Marin.
“When a police officer brings a child to Juvenile Hall, we have changed our philosophy,” he said. “If the situation does not represent a true threat to public safety or a true threat to that child’s welfare, we’re not going to detain that child.”
Lynch said societal factors are also at play, one of them being the so-called digital generation.
“Kids now are spending so much time on Xbox or the Wii that either they don’t have or make the time to get into trouble or they’re delinquent behavior is happening around those devices and not being caught out in our communities," he said.
But while the overall youth crime trend in Marin is positive, there’s still plenty of work to do, Lynch said, particularly because “our communities of color in Marin are not enjoying this trend, both as victims and perpetrators of youth crime. Our system is making a real effort to address that issue.”
That component is called disproportionate minority contact and refers to the high percentage of youth of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system relative to their numbers in the general population.
Marin County is in the final year of a three-year, $125,000 grant from the California Corrections Standards Authority to address disproportionate minority contact, working with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Burns Institute to do so.
The first part of the process was examining the data, which revealed that DMC absolutely exists in Marin. The next step was community engagement, convening regular meetings with approximately two dozen volunteers in those communities to come up with ideas and possible solutions, Lynch said.
In 2013, the probation department will produce a document that contains a strategy to reduce DMC in Marin, Lynch said.
“We’re looking at making sure that the ways they are processed are fair and equitable,” he said. The goal is to strike a “fine balance is between minimizing detention without compromising public safety.”
Here are the annual bookings and average daily population at Marin County Juvenile Hall for the past 5 years:
Avg. Daily Population