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New study offers insights on juvenile delinquency

An in-depth study of chronic juvenile offenders in the San Diego region found that a majority of the youth have suffered childhood trauma and have mental health, truancy, and substance abuse issues. The study captures the voices of youth about what caused their escalating involvement in the criminal justice system and uses their input to inform decision makers at the local and state levels on what policy changes have the potential to improve outcomes.

The SANDAG Applied Research Division conducted the study in partnership with the San Diego County Probation Department and The Children’s Initiative, with funding from the California Wellness Foundation.

Called “Seeking Alternatives: Understanding the Pathways to Incarceration of High-Risk Juvenile Offenders,” the study involved interviewing 40 high-risk youth and examining a variety of official records to learn about their trajectory into the criminal justice system, what interventions could have altered that course, and when those interventions could have been implemented to make the greatest difference.

Juvenile offenders who took part in the study, on average, had spent a third of their adolescence in custody, and they struggled with a long list of challenges:

• Over three-quarters had witnessed violence in their lives, with about a third having seen someone killed.
• Three-quarters reported regularly using alcohol or drugs before or during school, and the average age of first use was around 13.
• One in five had been removed from their home by Child Welfare Services.
• Two-thirds had a history of chronic truancy, and almost all had been suspended from school at least once.

Consistent with current research, the new report found that signs of delinquency generally appear several years prior to a youth entering the justice system. Juvenile offenders noted that they had behavior problems in school starting around middle school, which was around the first time many of them received their first referral to the Probation Department.

“The findings from our report provide a roadmap not just for the San Diego region, but also for California, to reduce juvenile delinquency,” SANDAG Criminal Justice Research Director Dr. Cynthia Burke said. “We know from research that incarceration does not reduce recidivism; in fact, it could increase recidivism among some low-level offenders, so it’s imperative to adopt best practices, such as early intervention and cross-systems collaboration, to holistically address the needs of juveniles.”

Below is a summary of the report’s key recommendations that were developed in partnership with the county Probation Department and The Children’s Initiative:
• Develop an interconnected treatment service delivery system that spans the child welfare system, schools, law enforcement, behavioral health system, juvenile justice system, and community-based services.
• Ensure effective alcohol/drug prevention and treatment is available.
• Address school issues early and make it a priority to keep youth in traditional school settings when possible.
• Increase community-based alternatives to detention and confinement.

Project Manager(s)

For media inquiries, please contact the SANDAG Public Information Office at (619) 699-1950 or pio@sandag.org.