Get soft on Crime

In a rare pairing, California's bleeding-heart San Francisco and shoot-first Orange County were cited by the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) last week for deploying programs, not prisons, to cut juvenile crime.

The Washington, D.C.-based AYPF is a big "P" (for "Program Lobby") in America's institutional gang shootout over how to bite down on crime. Its new report, "Less Hype, More Help," popped a cap in the biggest "P" (that would be "Prison Lobby"), concluding that trying juveniles as adults and packing them into prison produces more, not fewer, rotten kids.

Neither of the two biggies talk much about the most important "P"—reducing youth poverty—because, well, ain't no money in it.

Still, AYPF's report is stuffed with solid facts to derail the "get tough" stampede to lock up more kids for smaller offenses, fry 14-year-olds, and bust any threesome with baggy pants. It praises the Orange County Probation Department's "8 percent" and San Francisco's Detention Diversion as two of the "dozens of youth development programs with proven results."

The term "8 percent" refers to a famous 1994 Orange County study that found that only a small percentage of youths who get arrested—about 8 percent —would become career criminals. The study suggested focusing services on these big-risk youths, those displaying serious troubles—thuggery at a young age, family discord, school failure, drug and alcohol abuse—rather than going medieval on small-time offenders.

"Well, duh," one might scoff. But such common sense is actually breathtakingly revolutionary in the midst of today's round-'em-up hysteria. And it seems to work: later studies found 8-percenters enrolled in family services and individual programs were re-arrested at less than half the rate of similarly messed-up youths shoveled through the regular system.

Orange County authorities were also a bit less likely than their counterparts in other counties to banish criminals with hefty Three Strikes sentences or send kids to adult court. Apparently, softness didn't hurt. The county's mid-1990s violent crime decline was among the state's and nation's largest. Juvenile murder arrests dropped sharply, from an average of 30 per year in the early 1990s to just 11 in 1998—even as the teen population jumped by 25,000, refuting the scaremongers who claimed the rising teen population bore mobs of killer predators.

If Orange County's "get soft" approach yielded bigger crime declines than "get tough" solutions, San Francisco got better results by going even squishier. The Marshmallow by the Bay abolished its juvenile curfew, shunned Three Strikes and imprisoning kids as adults, and mellowed out over minor drug offenses. Result: San Francisco's violent-crime rate plunged by half (more than any other big city nationwide), juvenile murder arrests plummeted from 20 per year in the early decade to just one in 1997 and three in 1998, and juvenile gun deaths dropped an astonishing 85 percent.

Gloomily, the Forum's report found an inverse relationship between budgets and success. The juvenile-crime-control measures soaking up the big bucks— prisons, institutions, psychiatric hospitals, and school violence and drug programs, especially Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE)—were the ones that at best "have not proven highly effective." Of course, that depends on your notion of "effective." Investors in America's $25 billion youth institutional treatment and incarceration industry might describe as "highly effective" a system in which profits are practically guaranteed: three-fourths of the kids they attitude-adjust (at costs of hundreds of dollars per day) re-offend and get returned to institutions for further treatment—which is why the youth-fixing industry's useless panaceas continue to snarf huge funding.

The AYPF finds the Program Lobby's more modest family- and community-centered services are cheaper, fairer and more effective than Prison Lobby repressions such as Proposition 21, passed by voters in March. But a major flaw remains. Behind the Program and Prison lobbies' mix of ideology and self-interest lies the biggest, and most ignored, factor fueling crime and violence: poverty.

A staggering four in 10 California children and teens live in lower-income families (poorer than middle class), one-fourth are in poverty (incomes less than $17,000 per year for a family of four), and one in 10 are destitute (incomes less than half the poverty level). Crime and health statistics show that regardless of race, youths in the poorest counties (such as Fresno and San Bernardino) are three to 12 times more likely to be arrested for murder and die by guns than youths in richer counties (like Ventura and Orange). The same is true of adults.

The 93-page AYPF report (available online at doesn't discuss poverty. Better programs will fix all, it argues. But while community programs may work better than prisons for all but the bloodiest criminals, America's and California's real violence-buster lies in reducing poverty and inequality—and McGruff isn't eager to take a bite out of that.

Mike Males, UC Irvine social ecology Ph.D. and senior researcher for the Justice Policy Institute, will teach "California Youth in Transition" at UC Santa Cruz next fall.

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