The good news is that the national rate at which juveniles are being held in jail has fallen to its lowest level in 35 years and California is one of 18 states recording a decline of at least 40 percent in such rates over a 15-year period.

The bad news, of course, is that despite the decline in both rates and real numbers there remained more than 70,000 juveniles incarcerated nationally in 2010 and about 16 percent of those were in California, which still jails juveniles at a higher rate than many other states.

Those are some of the nuggets mined from a study released last week from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children's issues.

(Staff archives)
(Staff archives)

The foundation analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement between 1996 and 2010, which revealed incarceration rates and real numbers have been declining since 1995 when the nation had more than 105,000 juveniles in jail.

Many experts attribute the decrease to a policy sea change created in large part by advocacy groups that have lobbied effectively for alternatives to incarceration for many types of juvenile offenders.

It is important to note that the lower incarceration rates do not seem to have come at the expense of public safety. In fact, it could be argued that the alternative methods may be helping improve it.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention informs us that arrest rates for juveniles involved in violent crime in 2010 fell by 55 percent from the 1994 peak.

The Casey study reveals that about 40 percent of the juveniles incarcerated are sent to jail for nonviolent and relatively minor transgressions such as running away from home or violating curfew -- offenses that wouldn't be considered illegal if committed by someone 18 or older.

We find that unacceptable. States must continue to work on lowering that number.

Scientific research confirms what parents have known for eons: Teenagers' brains are not fully matured and that once they do develop a youth possesses a better mastery of what scientists call executive function -- what some might call self-control.

While the study plots an unmistakable long-term trend, it is clear that there is still much to do.

We agree with the report that juvenile correction facilities are costly and often counterproductive because they expose youth to risk of injury and abuse, not to mention that they are largely ineffective in reducing recidivism.

"The recent de-incarceration trend provides a unique opportunity to implement responses to delinquency that are more cost-effective and humane, and that provide better outcomes for youth, their families and communities," the report said.

We could not agree more and strongly support the conclusion that all states should restrict incarceration to only those "who pose a demonstrable risk to public safety" or to themselves.

The ones who fit that category clearly need institutional care, but the kids who do not can be more effectively treated through alternative methods. It is better for the kids and for society.