Recidivism in California

Recidivism in California

California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country: Fifty-eight percent of individuals released from prison end up back in the system within three years, compared with the national average of 40% when excluding California, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although there are a host of reasons for this unfortunate distinction, one is that the Golden State government makes it unusually difficult for its struggling residents to find jobs.
All states have occupational licensing laws that require individuals to complete various steps before they can enter certain professions. Mandates may include hours, months or even years of training, expensive fees and tests. Over the past several decades, occupational licensing laws in California – and across the country – have grown dramatically. In the 1950s about 5% of occupations were licensed nationwide. Today, roughly 25% of occupations require a state license, many for poor and middle-income professions, according to a recent White House study.
The Golden State’s occupational licensing laws are stricter than most. In fact, the Institute for Justice ranks California as “the second-most broadly and onerously licensed state.” California is one of seven states to license tree trimmers, one of 10 to license landscape workers, one of two to license still machine setters, one of two to license funeral attendants, and one of nine to license farm labor contractors.
[In California,] a tree trimmer must complete 1,460 hours of training, pass two exams, and pay $851 in fees.
All told, 62 of 102 low- and moderate-income occupations are licensed, more than any state except Louisiana and Arizona.
On average, Californians seeking an occupational license will pay $300 in fees, lose 549 days to training requirements and have to take an exam. That’s just the average. Some of the burdens are far more cumbersome. For instance, a tree trimmer must complete 1,460 hours of training, pass two exams, and pay $851 in fees; a mobile home installer must also complete 1,460 hours, compared to the national average of 245; and a pharmacy technician must complete 730 hours in addition to meeting educational requirements, a bar that’s only as high in three other states.
Unlike some states, which have enacted outright bans on licensing individuals with a record, California does have some protections for ex-convicts. The state allows agencies to deny individuals a license based only on “substantially related” convictions. In most cases, agencies cannot deny an individual “solely on the basis” of his or her past convictions.
Whatever the state’s intentions, however, its onerous licensing laws have the effect of keeping ex-convicts out of licensed occupations. After years behind bars, they don’t have the savings needed to enroll in training programs, much less pay licensing fees. To become a licensed security alarm installer, for instance, an individual must complete 933 hours of training, which can easily cost upwards of $1,200. Many of the training programs, moreover, require a high school degree, which two in five inmates nationwide never obtained, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice study.
To stay out of prison, ex-convicts need a way to provide for themselves legally. With so many barriers to employment, it’s no wonder that states with abundant licensing laws experience a higher recidivism rate.
Analysis of data from the Institute for Justice, the Pew Center on the States and the National Employment Law Project reveals that states with the most burdensome licensing laws saw an average 9% increase in recidivism from 1997 to 2007. On the other hand, the states that had the lowest licensing burdens and no provisions excluding ex-convicts saw an average decline in recidivism by nearly 2.5%.
In other words, the greater the licensing barriers, the higher the chances that ex-prisoners will be shut out of the job market and return to crime.
In theory, states license occupations for public health and safety reasons. But the proliferation of such laws in recent decades doesn’t appear to be motivated – or justified – by such causes. After examining empirical research, the White House study concluded, “licensed professions’ degree of political influence is one of the most important factors in determining whether states regulate an occupation.”
What’s more, of the 12 major studies the White House analyzed, only two found that more stringent licensing laws were actually associated with improved service.
Even when safety may be a reasonable concern, the requirements often don’t match the occupation: For instance, while a California landscaper must complete 1,460 days of training, an emergency medical technician is only required to train for 28 days. If safety was the priority, shouldn’t it be the reverse?
California is regulating individuals out of good-paying jobs, and it hurts those just getting on their feet.
State lawmakers dedicated to criminal justice reform will make lasting changes if they break the cycle of recidivism. They could start by removing the government barriers to employment. That’s a sure way to improve – rather than hold back – the lives of those seeking a second chance.
Stephen Slivinski is a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.

Over the past few years, voices asking to raise the age of criminal responsibility beyond age 18 have emerged. As a leader in the youth justice field, the Campaign for Youth Justice plays an important role in ending the prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration of youth in the adult criminal justice system. CFYJ accomplishes this in three ways, through (1) state and federal advocacy, by providing technical assistance and training support, (2) strategic communications, by lifting the voices of those most impacted, and (3) research, by serving as a clearinghouse of information and effective alternatives. As the only national organization dedicated to this issue, we were interested in finding out what raising the age to 21 practically and logistically imply, especially in order to address the concerns of many stakeholders in the field – particularly those who fear that it is dangerous to house youth over 18 with younger children. 

To determine current practice on the ways states with extended juvenile court jurisdiction beyond age 18, we interviewed juvenile justice department administrators in the states who have extended age of juvenile court jurisdiction 21 and up to 25.  From these interviews, the following themes emerged:

  • Programming looks the same across populations;
  • Housing youth up to age 25 in juvenile facilities does not add any extra challenges to behavior and safety;
  • The average length of stay in committed facilities ranges from 7.5 months to 37 months for 18-25 year-olds;
  • Risk assessment is always used, regardless of age; Re-entry programs are not different for older youth; Housing separation based on age is not necessary; and
  • The juvenile justice system is where this older population of youth belongs.

Overall, our interviewees agreed upon the fact that these older youth were better served in the juvenile justice system, where they can – unlike in the adult system – receive educational programs, appropriate treatments, and actually be rehabilitated. They also addressed the concerns about these young adults having a bad influence on younger children, and asserted that putting them together could actually have a positive effect, while no particular additional behavioral challenges could be observed. “There are 15 year olds housed with 24 year olds. The kids go where their needs are best met, regardless of their age. Instances of victimization are very rare because of the big brother mentality that develops between older youth and younger kids,” one of the interviewees told CFYJ.

According to adolescent brain science, a young person’s brain is not fully developed until they reached their mid-20s. The interviewees were aware of the research, and many of them used it as a base to defend the system in place in their state. “Brain development science shows that the juvenile justice system is still the appropriate setting for this older population, regardless of crime, based on culpability, etc…,” a juvenile justice department leader told us. The evidence presented by brain development science is indeed what one the main reasons to raise the question of extending juvenile jurisdiction to this older population in the first place.

This piece of research conducted by CFYJ modestly contributes to informing the field about the pros and cons of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction beyond 18, what factors may be present, and if it’s the appropriate time to consider this

Research and the media paint a bleak picture for those whose formative adolescent years have been intertwined with incarceration and who may continue to traverse the revolving door of probation, detention and corrections into their adult lives.
Using in-depth interviews, UCLA social welfare professor Laura Abrams and Diane Terry, a senior research associate at Loyola Marymount College’s Psychology Applied Research Center, present a more nuanced portrait of life after juvie in their new book, “Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth” (Rutgers University Press).

Desistance is often defined as “the movement toward the complete termination of offending.” In their study, the authors looked more closely at this process by collecting firsthand stories and insights from young adults who experienced it.
Abrams and Terry, who earned her M.S.W. and Ph.D. degrees at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, interviewed 25 men and women, ages 18-25, in Los Angeles who aged out of the juvenile justice system. Some interviews spanned numerous years so that the researchers could understand their subjects’ transition to “emerging adults” and obtain a picture of participants’ “everyday” experiences after growing up in the juvenile justice system.

The researchers said that they looked at those whose lives lie between the extreme narratives that predict failure or success against all odds. They focused on the challenges and opportunities facing those who neither gave up on their goals nor found a simple, straightforward pathway to success.

“Criminal desistance is not an end goal; it is a process. And it is certainly not linear,” Abrams said. The book is the culmination of a decade of Abrams’ work on juvenile reentry and desistance—research she started upon arriving at UCLA in 2006.
The book covers very different points of view and experiences of men and women in the juvenile justice system.
“The young women have a unique story, and much of their post-incarceration lives revolve around finding and experiencing a sense of ‘home’ that they didn’t have in their youth,” Abrams said.

One chapter, “You Can Run but You Can’t Hide,” points out the dangers that persist when youth transitioning to adulthood return to their old neighborhoods. Those youths said that they feel marked by their histories.

“We’re all marked. Forever. All of us. No matter how much the transformation,” said a young man named Oscar, whose story is featured prominently in the book.
Abrams and Terry said that they count this discovery as one of the most important lessons they learned from the interviews. “From the young men’s world view, being marked was partially related to the stigma from appearance, age and race, but was also tied to navigating the urban environments of Los Angeles as former gang members, drug dealers and those whom law enforcement viewed as criminals,” Abrams said.

Abrams and Terry previously wrote a paper based on these interviews, “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide”: How Formerly Incarcerated Young Men Navigate Neighborhood Risks,” published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review. The researchers discussed how young men, including those with old gang ties, contend with everyday risks and how they devise complex survival strategies in high-adversity environments.
Abrams and Terry said that research from fields ranging from criminology to biology informed their newest study. But it was the insights gathered from more than 70 interviews that helped them understand the factors that may affect criminal desistance—age, maturity, social bonds, internal motivation and neighborhood conditions, among others.

“Although we fully acknowledge that the juvenile justice system continues to create a group of youth who are disadvantaged as they enter adulthood, we contend that these young men and women are a great deal more than their bleak odds,” the authors wrote. They also note that, as juveniles age out of the system and are suddenly deemed adults left to their own devices, they are thrust into adulthood and responsibility earlier than their peers who may have access to more social and economic resources.

“Transitioning to adulthood with little support and an incarcerated past is hard,” Abrams said. “There is a lot of trauma to contend with. Most of the youth were struggling with just daily needs. Their lives changed rapidly and unpredictably.”
The authors recognize the limitations of social safety nets in providing youth with everything needed to overcome barriers to criminal desistance. They call for specific policies for this group, similar to those that exist for former foster youth.
“As we listened to the narratives of our participants and watched their adult lives unfold, we were amazed at the ingenuity and resilience of these young men and women to navigate immense obstacles they faced,” Abrams said. “In the end, their stories taught us that all young people have the capacity to reach beyond the labels assigned to