Before its closure in 2015, Apache County’s juvenile detention center would sit a month, six weeks, maybe more without housing a single kid.
The fully staffed facility was left waiting for the occasional drop-off. According to the Associated Press, the operation cost $800,000 a year, yet it averaged only 1.7 children in its custody at any given time.
The detention center was shut down, and a partnership was formed with Navajo County to house Apache’s juvenile offenders.
But on June 30, Navajo County closed its detention center, too. So did Gila County. And Graham County’s numbers are so low, its leadership is considering using just one detention area, leaving three more vacant and another open for a community program growing in popularity.
Arizona’s juvenile detention centers are closing because juvenile offender populations are plummeting, and juvenile offender populations are plummeting because kids these days are committing crimes at a rate far below generations before them.
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in the past two decades, the juvenile arrest rate for all offenses nationwide reached its peak in 1996 when nearly 8,500 arrests were made per 100,000 kids between 10 and 17. By 2015, that arrest rate had fallen 68 percent.
Between 1980 and 2012, property crime arrests among juveniles between the ages of 15 and 17 fell 57 percent, and violent crime arrest rates in that group dropped 68 percent.
Those trends are representative of what is happening in Arizona, going well beyond juvenile arrests and detention.
According to data from the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, from 2007 to 2014, the number of juvenile offenders referred to the courts dropped by about 45 percent, and the number of juvenile offenders who were ultimately committed to corrections fell 49 percent.
It’s not a bad problem to have – too few kids getting into trouble with the law – but it has left Arizona to rethink its approach to juvenile detention.
Joseph Kelroy, director of Arizona’s Juvenile Justice Services Division, said all counties in the state are using risk and needs assessments to determine whether a juvenile offender belongs in detention and what the child needs to move forward. Eight counties are actively engaged in the rollout of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, an effort to develop statewide detention screening guidelines, and all counties have received training from Kids at Hope, a program that turns away from the concept of “bad kids.”
Kelroy said communities have more programs available to keep young people out of trouble and identify those who are struggling early on, leaving detention as a last resort.
“If we can keep them out on the front end and deal with it from a preventative standpoint, I think we’re going to have better results,” he said. “If we can work with people in their communities, in their homes with the families engaged, we’re going to have better opportunities to be successful more often.”
But while services geared toward working out a juvenile’s past traumas, substance abuse or family challenges may help prevent a history of crime, Kelroy said a percentage of young offenders will still require detention for their own safety and that of the public.
As detention populations remain low, the state is looking to the Detention Center Regionalization Task Force to develop solutions by this fall.
Kelroy said developing regional detention centers is an option, though the locations of such facilities raises questions for juveniles coming from more remote parts of the state. The juvenile detention center in Pinal County has already taken on the kids coming from Apache, Gila and Navajo counties.
The task force will also make recommendations for repurposing entire facilities or vacant sections, creating youth centers in their place where kids can move freely as they cool down after a fight with parents or await screening in more severe cases.
Ultimately, Kelroy said the system shouldn’t hurt people. Detention should be a short-term solution, if it is necessary at all. And when a kid does come into contact with the justice system, he said that’s an opportunity to help.
Unfortunately, while the state can restructure detention, no one knows exactly what is behind the drop in juvenile crime.
Dave Byers, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said people started joking that kids today are spending far more time on social media than they are out on the streets, but he’s not so sure that’s entirely far-fetched anymore.
Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said there might be something to that theory.
Take violent crimes, for example. Causing physical harm to someone is awfully difficult if you are not face to face, Sickmund pointed out.
She said most violent crimes committed by juveniles fall under assault, the elevated pushing and shoving that may be found in school brawls. It could be that kids are simply taking that violence and projecting it online, something Sickmund said is not being measured well, but it is disappearing from the streets even if communities are not entirely aware of the shift.
Sickmund said young people are also self-correcting – they may not be great decision-makers, but it doesn’t take much to scare them back in line. And the justice system today is more cognizant of how best to do that.
They start thinking about college, about their career goals, about the places they want to go and things they want to do. And they know those things won’t happen if they continuously get into trouble.
They “outgrow that risk-taking behavior” and “grow into being able to see the consequences of our actions,” Sickmund said.
“It’s kind of their job to rebel,”she said. “We don’t want to make that a crime. We just want to train them away from that.”