By Greg Moran
When San Diego County went looking for grant funds to help build a 300-bed jail for juveniles, officials argued that the 1950s-era Juvenile Hall on Meadowlark Lane was strained to the breaking point.
“There is literally no more room at the inn,” the county warned in a grant application in 1999 seeking $36 million in construction funds for what would become, in 2004, the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility.
And things were only going to get worse: At the time, the county estimated it would need 1,284 beds to house all its juvenile offenders by 2015.
But today, there is plenty of room at the inn—so much so that whole sections of the county’s two juvenile halls are periodically shuttered, because there is no one to put there.
And contrary to those dire predictions of 1,200 spaces for delinquent youths, the number of juveniles in custody in the county’s network of juvenile halls and camps is a fraction of the estimate penciled out in the grant application.
In 2015, the average daily population in the juvenile halls and youth camps was 445–nearly two-thirds less than predicted.
The dwindling population of juvenile hall is part of a broader and deeper decline in juvenile crime that has accelerated markedly since 2010 — in San Diego and numerous counties across the state.
That decline — measured in arrest rates, the number of youths supervised by county probation officers, and held in juvenile halls — has been driven by a broad change in approach over the past decade.