Santa Cruz County, Ca., is sending home all but the worst kids accused of juvenile crimes, says the Los Angeles Times. Instead of sitting in jail, young criminal defendants are placed under house arrest, made to deal with their parents, and face their victims. They’re given a job, tutoring, and counseling. “We’re better off sending a lot of these youths back home,” said Judge John Salazar. “Government does a lousy job of raising other people’s kids.”
What critics call a soft-headed experiment with potentially dangerous results is called a success in Santa Cruz, just as it was in similar projects in Chicago and Portland, Ore. In the seven years since Santa Cruz County altered its approach to juvenile troublemakers, just 2 percent have committed new offenses while awaiting resolution of their cases. At the same time, youth crime in the county fell 30 percent, the juvenile detention facility’s daily population declined 47 percent and the length of stay dropped to a third of the state average.
With fewer youths behind bars, Santa Cruz spends far less on juvenile incarceration. Home detention is less than half the cost of housing youths in juvenile hall.
Nationally, juvenile detention population grew 74 percent from 1985 to 1995. Operating costs soared 139 percent bringing the average annual detention cost per child to $36,000. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington nonprofit, contends in a national report due in early January that “nothing short of a lock-up boom exists in the United States.”
California has become one of the most aggressive youth jailers, with an incarceration rate 39 percent higher than the national average. The state is on a path to add about 3,200 juvenile hall beds by 2006, boosting capacity 30 percent.
Larry Price, president of Chief Probation Officers of California, admits to an “uncomfortable feeling” that reformers in places like Santa Cruz sometimes fail to make public safety a high enough priority. Price said “they need to bring it back to a middle point.”