California, as a result of the courts, has changed its system of dealing with juvenile criminals, closing almost all of its juvenile prisons.

One corrosive effect has been that juveniles are much less apt to be charged with lower level crimes—creating the problem that the longer crime pays the deeper the criminal becomes committed to it—as this story from Capitol Weekly reports.

An excerpt.

California, which just a few years ago had 11 state juvenile prisons, now has three. The number of youth offenders sent to state lockups has dropped by 90 percent during the past two decades, from down from about 10,000 in 1996 to less than 800 today. Those remaining in state custody represent the most hard-core young offenders.

“Youth crime in California is at a 40-year low. Looking at the statistics you could argue this is the best-behaved generation on record. Now why that is, we don’t know,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Sociologists and criminologists haven’t explained it; all we know is that it’s happening.”…

Before, a county would pay a lower fee to send a juvenile to state facilities if they had committed a lower-level crime. Now, no matter what level the crime, a county pays $24,000 for sending a single offender to the state, unless they have ties to a gang.

The result, authorities say, is that more wards are retained at the local level, closer to their families.

The Legislature also enacted policies to more narrowly define what type of offender could be sent to the state level-juvenile justice system.

This policy shift has expanded juvenile corrections at the county level and allowed the state to close most of its youth penitentiaries.

There is an ongoing debate about whether counties are getting enough state funding to put these program reforms into practice. The counties say no, the state says yes.

“You never get enough from the state,” Ball said. “Basically what they do is they give you much less money to do a better job than they were doing, which costs a lot more money.”

According to the California Budget Project, the amount of money spent on state corrections has increased since the 2010-11 fiscal year and now totals about $7 billion. If realignment had not been approved, the state would have spent more on the same levels of service, the according to the CBP. The CBP is an independent, nonprofit fiscal research group that examines the state budget in terms of its impact on low- and moderate-income Californians and families.

The CBP also found counties receive less funding per year to house and supervise low-level offenders and parolees than what would have likely been spent by the state.

The decrease in funding, critics say, has translated into a rise in criminal activity related to gangs, particularly in the Central Valley.  Paradoxically, there also is a drop in the overall crime rate. So how are these facts reconciled.

“The crime rate going down is not necessarily indicative that the crimes are not being committed; it’s just that they’re not being pursued on a formal level,” said Joseph Mata, Probation Supervisor of the Gang Intervention and Suppression Unit in Kern County.

“Our petition desk and our juvenile investigations bureau is referring less cases to the DA based on our assessment criteria,” Officer Mata said. “The staffing in the juvenile DA’s office, they can only prosecute so many cases.”

Mata said the new structure of the correctional system has created a situation where insignificant crimes may not get filed on or deferred to a lesser sanction, which wouldn’t register on any crime data.