Juvenile Justice Arrests

In 1899, reformers created a separate juvenile court system with the dual goals of controlling juvenile delinquency and providing social welfare to children and adolescents engaged in delinquent behaviors.[1] Though the juvenile justice system has undergone significant reform that has eroded some of its original welfare goals,[2] it still tries, when possible, to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth rather than incarcerate them.[3]
 Youth most frequently come in contact with the juvenile justice system through contact with police.[4] Responding officers have discretion (see Police Stops and Searches) in the actions they take when interacting with youth. Those actions may include informal “adjustment” (requiring informal supervision of six months or less), diversion into a community rehabilitation program, or filing of a formal complaint or charges.[5] If formal charges are filed, youth enter an intake process where officials decide whether the case will be dismissed, handled informally, or handled formally where it will enter the juvenile justice system and go on to judicial processing. Youth judged in court as delinquent (essentially, found guilty of the charges) will then typically have a disposition plan developed for them by the court that specifies the consequences of the offense, whether it is probation, restitution, incarceration, or some other outcome.[6]
 It is important to study juvenile arrests because arrests are most youths’ entryway into the juvenile justice system. Research has found that the greatest racial disparity exists for arrests, followed by the most punitive of punishments (e.g., receiving a carceral sentence or being transferred to adult court).[7] In San Diego County in 2018, Black youth were significantly overrepresented in arrests and were more likely than all other youth to be detained pre-adjudication than to receive a referral to probation.[8] Hispanic youth had about equal proportions of receiving a referral or being detained, but of those with a true finding, the majority received a commitment.[9],[10]
 Nationally, people who were arrested at some point in adolescence had lower educational attainment and were more likely to be in debt and have lower assets and net worth in adulthood than juveniles who were never arrested.[11] Additionally, juveniles who were incarcerated had lower rates of employment and higher rates of adult criminal offending and incarceration.[12]
 In addition to recording information about crimes reported to the police, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program also collects information about arrests by age. These data are counts of the number of arrests made by the reporting police agency, not people arrested. If, for example, a person is arrested, released, and rearrested in the same month, they are counted as having more than one arrest. On the other hand, in cases where more than one crime is committed in a single incident, the hierarchy rule applies (see Crime Rate), only the most serious offense is recorded by the FBI, and only one arrest is recorded. 
 Nationally, arrests of juveniles have decreased sharply from a peak of nearly 2.7 million in 1996 to 424,300 in 2020.[13],[14] Of those arrests in 2020, 64% were of White youth, 32% were of Black youth, 3% were of American Indian youth, and 1% were of Asian youth (data were not reported by ethnicity or broken into any further racial or other demographic categories). Only 29% of arrests were of females. Approximately 18% of juvenile arrests were for property index offenses such as burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson and 8% were for serious violent crimes including murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, and aggravated assault), with the remainder of arrests for crimes not traditionally considered serious.[15]
 Data for juvenile arrests in this report come from the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) as reported by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).[16] The number of arrests per 1,000 people ages 10-17 years old was calculated to standardize the measure for comparison but this can make rates in locations with small populations appear artificially high. For example, one arrest in a town with a population of 100 youth would have an arrest rate of 10 per 1,000 people 10-17 years of age.
 As shown in the figure below, the rate of juvenile arrests in San Diego County in 2021 were generally low – less than 13 per 1,000 people 10-17 years of age. San Marcos had the highest arrest rate at about 12.5 people 10-17 years of age per 1,000 people, followed by Lemon Grove (11.6 per 1,000 people), Escondido (7.9 per 1,000 people), and National City (7.6 per 1,000). Each of the other police departments reported a juvenile justice arrest rate below 7 per 1,000. To reduce the juvenile arrest rate, police departments can instead divert some cases to community-based programs focused on meeting the needs of juveniles that will prevent further delinquent behavior.

Data Information
Data Source: Automated Regional Justice Information System, SANDAG Population Estimates 2021. Prepared by SANDAG Regional Criminal Justice Research & Clearinghouse Division, January 2023.
Rates include felony, misdemeanor, and status offense arrests. Camp Pendleton population is not included in the total rates.
  1. Feld, B. C. (1999). Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court. Oxford University Press.
  2.   Ibid.
  3.   Youth.gov. (n.d.). Juvenile Justice. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://youth.gov/youth-topics/juvenile-justice
  4.   Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (n.d.). Overview: Law Enforcement & Juvenile Crime. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/overview.html
  5.   Youth.gov. (n.d.). Points of Intervention. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://youth.gov/youth-topics/juvenile-justice/points-intervention
  6.   Ibid.
  7.   Zane, S. N., Welsh, B. C., Mears, D. P., & Zimmerman, G. M. (2022). Pathways through juvenile justice: A system-level assessment of cumulative disadvantage in the processing of juvenile offenders. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 38(2), 483–514. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-021-09505-w
  8.   Keaton, S., Sauer, K., Schroeder, G., & Burke, C. (2020, September). The Role of Race and Ethnicity in the San Diego County Juvenile Justice System. SANDAG. Retrieved from https://www.sandag.org/data-and-research/criminal-justice-and-public-safety/evaluation-services/-/media/3D720CCFEC8E4D6A9362EF6BE52A7B92.ashx
  9.   Ibid.
  10.   “Commitment” is used in the juvenile justice system and is similar to “incarceration” (the language used in the adult system).
  11.   Siennick, S. E., & Widdowson, A. O. (2022). Juvenile arrest and later economic attainment: Strength and mechanisms of the relationship. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 38(1), 23–50. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-020-09482-6
  12.   Aizer, A., & Doyle, J. J. (2015). Juvenile incarceration, human capital, and future crime: Evidence from randomly assigned judges. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(2), 759–803. https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjv003
  13.   Puzzanchera, C. (2020). Juvenile arrests, 2018 (National Report Series Bulletin). Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/media/document/254499.pdf
  14.   Demographic characteristics of juvenile arrests, 2020. (2022). Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/qa05104.asp?qaDate=2020
  15.   Ibid.
  16.   Sandag (2023). Arrests 2021: Law Enforcement Response to Crime in the San Diego Region.CJ Bulletin. Retrieved from, https://www.sandag.org/-/media/SANDAG/Documents/PDF/data-and-research/criminal-justice-and-public-safety/bulletin-arrests-2021-law-enforcement-response-2023-01-01.pdf
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Updated February 7, 2024