Editorials

Two-thirds of recently expanded Juvenile Hall in Modesto sits empty

Plastic “boat” beds like the ones shown on the floor of a living unit at the Stanislaus County juvenile hall help provide a temporary solution to overcrowding at the facility on Blue Gum Ave. in Modesto. Photographed on Tuesday August 7, 2007 Ted Benson/The Modesto B
Plastic “boat” beds like the ones shown on the floor of a living unit at the Stanislaus County juvenile hall help provide a temporary solution to overcrowding at the facility on Blue Gum Ave. in Modesto. Photographed on Tuesday August 7, 2007 Ted Benson/The Modesto B Bee File Photo

The precipitous drop in juvenile crime — here, across California and beyond — is puzzling.

Just about the time Stanislaus County, with help from the state, sunk $16 million into a major expansion of Juvenile Hall, in 2013, we suddenly had fewer youthful offenders to house.

For years, the average daily population of Juvenile Hall had easily exceeded 100. Chronic overcrowding forced detention officers to release some young inmates early, The Modesto Bee reported in 2004.

So our leaders – expecting a steady increase in arrests – six years ago upped capacity to 218 in a huge addition. They then watched the average daily population drop below 90 in 2014 and 2015, and eventually below 80. By 2017, Juvenile Hall housed less than 70 on an average day, although the number bumped up a bit last year.

Those numbers are about half what they were a decade earlier. And no one saw it coming.

“I don’t have answers,” said Mike Hamasaki, chief of Stanislaus probation, which runs Juvenile Hall. “If it were just our county, I might say (this or that), but it’s statewide, and everyone is doing something different in their county. So it’s a big mystery.”

The San Francisco Chronicle took a long look at data and concluded that youth arrests in 2016 had plunged 84 percent across California, compared to 1980. The Chronicle found several experts, like Hamasaki, scratching their heads to explain it.

Are teens these days too busy on their phones or playing video games to get in trouble on the streets? Is the relative prevalence of marijuana keeping them mellow? Maybe a reduction in lead poisoning over the years is addling fewer young brains?

“I could speculate,” Stanislaus Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said, “but it would only be speculation.”

It’s curious, Hamasaki said, that reductions in adult crimes have not kept pace. Arrests of offenders in their 50s, for example, fell only 9 percent since 1980, compared to the 84 percent drop among youths, the Chronicle found.

“You would hope that if somebody captures what’s working with juveniles, we could replicate that in the adult world,” Hamasaki said.

His Probation Department oversees former inmates on probation, as well as staffing Juvenile Hall. With fewer juvenile inmates, the county last year eliminated seven vacant guard positions at Juvenile Hall and added six “field services” positions to oversee adult offenders out of custody on probation.

That’s a move in the right direction. In all honesty, there should be even more such movement.

Because many other counties are moving even slower, the cost of housing a child in sparsely used lockups throughout California has jumped from $143,300 a year in 2011 to $284,700 in 2018, the Chronicle found. It’s because too many probation departments, citing labor and other fixed costs that can’t easily be trimmed, have not adjusted accordingly.

Some San Francisco leaders have proposed closing their juvenile hall, and Mayor London Breed has convened a panel of experts to figure out what’s best for that city’s juvenile justice system.

Here in Stanislaus County, Hamasaki said he will propose shifting two more youth detention jobs to adult probation in upcoming budget proposals.

That’s laudable, but total spending for our Juvenile Hall has remained flat since its 2013 expansion, at nearly $7 million a year. Our county leaders should give more thought to reducing that expense. Maintaining a costly lockup that’s only 36 percent occupied is not the best use of taxpayer money.

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