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New Report Shows California’s Youth Incarceration among Highest in the Nation and Largely Ineffective

Oakland, CA —According to the KIDS COUNT® Data Snapshot released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and distributed by Children Now, the youth incarceration rate in the United States is rapidly declining, hitting a 35-year low in 2010. However, the U.S. still has the highest rate of youth incarceration in the industrialized world, and the vast majority (3 in 4) of the country’s incarcerated youth are held for non-violent offenses. The report highlights that while juvenile corrections facilities are enormously costly to operate, they often put youth at risk for injury and abuse, and are largely ineffective in reducing recidivism.

The report shows California has more incarcerated youth (11,532 total or 271 per 100,000 youth) than any other state in the nation. Texas, the second most populous state behind California, has less than half (5,352 total or 204 per 100,000 youth) California’s number of incarcerated youth. In fact, the number of incarnated youth in California approaches that of Texas (5,352), New York (2,637) and Florida (4,815) combined (12,804). California’s incarceration rate ranks far above states like Vermont, New Jersey, and Mississippi that have rates below 150 per 100,000 youth. Only 10 states, including Wyoming, South Dakota, and West Virginia, have higher youth incarceration rates than California.

“California must implement a more pro-active and effective approach to youth incarceration,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now. “We know that kids who regularly attend school are far more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to enter the criminal justice system. We need to start there.” While a high school graduate can result in nearly $400,000 in total economic benefits to California, a cohort of 120,000 high school drop outs costs the state $46.4 billion in total lost income, taxes, and economic activity.

One approach to boost school attendance and curb high school dropout and youth incarceration rates is to reform harsh school discipline policies. Specifically, zero-tolerance school discipline policies, along with ambiguous and overly broad uses of the code “willful defiance” as a means of suspension and expulsion, take many more students out of the classroom than necessary. This causes them to fall further behind in school and increases their chances of dropping out and becoming incarcerated. There are currently at least two model school discipline systems that have proven to be effective alternatives to punitive school discipline policies: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Justice. These systems are currently being implemented in districts and schools across the state, including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and Richmond High School, and when implemented, have regularly cut the number of suspensions and expulsions in half.

“Reforming overly harsh and inequitable discipline policies is one way we can proactively address youth incarceration rates. California schools have already demonstrated that by focusing on improving school discipline, they can increase graduation rates and reduce the rates of suspensions and expulsions,” said Ted Lempert. “More supportive discipline models and programs can improve opportunities for students, keep them in school, and reduce their risk of becoming incarcerated.”

The KIDS COUNT® Data Snapshot features the latest data for states, the District of Columbia, and the nation, and is available for free download at

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