Beds that once restrained out-of-control kids have been repurposed into vegetable garden beds in a former recreation area at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center.

Unused living units have been transformed into a branch of the Pima County Public Library, a computer lab and more space for the center's medical unit.

The center, which has the capacity for 265 beds, had only 47 of them in use last week.

Youth confinement has decreased nationwide in the last 15 years, and Arizona is one of five states that has seen it drop the most, says a new study on juvenile justice reform by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. In all five states, the rate of children and teenagers in confinement, including those in detention, dropped by more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2010, the report shows.

Pima County responded to rising juvenile delinquency rates in 2000 by expanding its detention center, where minors awaiting court appearances are housed.

"Our facility was bursting at the seams with kids. It was built for about 110 kids, and we were at 170, 180," said Dodie Ledbetter, Pima County Juvenile Court deputy administrator. "We had kids sleeping on the gym floor. We had kids sleeping in every living unit. We had two, sometimes three, kids to a room because we didn't have enough beds.

But instead, new programs to better serve young offenders, along with an overall dip in juvenile delinquency, pushed the number of detainees down dramatically.

Arizona rate halved

Using data from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Justice Policy report compared rates of juveniles in confinement per 100,000 youths in each state.

In 2001, Arizona had a rate of 305 youths in confinement per 100,000. That dropped to 152 per 100,000 in 2010.

Other states that had a decrease of more than 50 percent were Connecticut, Tennessee, Louisiana and Minnesota.

The states have reshaped "their juvenile systems away from the overuse of confinement and towards recognition that young people are different from adults," said Spike Bradford, a senior institute research associate and author of the report, in a news release. "The reasons that put them in contact with the justice system are different, and the way we respond to their behavior should be different."

The Pima County detention center, 2225 E. Ajo Way, saw referrals to the center fall to 2,868 from 5,615 between 2001 and 2010. It continued to drop to 1,782 in 2012.

The number of juveniles detained at the center went from 3,808 in 2001 to 1,535 in 2010. In 2012, that rate dropped to 998.

Juvenile crime down overall

The decrease in youths detained in Pima County can be attributed to a decrease in juvenile crime - and also to reform measures implemented by the county's detention center in 2004.

Working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the juvenile court developed a new risk assessment that determines an offender's eligibility for detention, Ledbetter said.

The assessment gives the offender a score by taking into account several factors, including risk to the community and whether the person is likely to reoffend within 45 days.

"Given that most kids in our community never reach a mandatory detainment number, they're not high-risk kids: They're high-needs kids. We have kids with significant substance abuse issues, mental health issues, education issues, (who) generally haven't had a lot of success in their life," Ledbetter said. "So we limited and restricted the ability to be detained based on factors that are supported by research."

Instead of being detained, low- and medium-risk youths are offered alternatives. They can attend evening reporting centers to participate in cognitive restructuring, recreation and other skill development activities, Ledbetter said.

Another major alternative is the court's Domestic Violence Alternative Center. Instead of being admitted to the detention center, youths who have committed certain misdemeanor domestic violence offenses meet with probation officers and social workers who work to reunite the offenders with their families that same day.

The alternatives better serve young offenders by helping address their needs, said defense attorney Leah Hamilton, team leader of the juvenile division of the Pima County Public Defender's office, which worked with the court on the reform initiatives.

"Back in the old days, it was so much different," said Hamilton, who has worked in juvenile court since the early 1990s. "It was like a rubber stamp - kids would get a couple of chances, and then they'd get locked up. Now it's the exception rather than the rule, and yet we're not seeing an escalation in crime, so whatever we're doing is working."

The average length of stay for a juvenile admitted to the detention center is 17 days, Ledbetter said.

"Locking up people who shouldn't be locked up increases their risk of further delinquent behaviors," she said.

Other factors

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall points to other factors contributing to fewer youths being referred to the detention center.

In the early '90s, as a response to an uptick in violent youth crime, an initiative was put into place to send certain violent re-offenders straight to adult court, LaWall said. The number of arrests for violent crimes decreased in the mid-'90s, she said.

"So a message must have gotten out there in the community somehow that if they committed certain violent offenses or committed a certain number of felony offenses, they would be treated as adults," she said.

She said she believes that shift allowed the detention center to dedicate more resources to low-level offenders.

"Now juvenile court had more resources to give to those kids who were at a stage in their criminal career where intervention might actually make a real difference," LaWall said. "It really freed up some significant resources in terms of the counseling resources, the drug treatment resources, the probation resources. It also helped empty out some of those beds."

The County Attorney's Office also began its own intervention initiatives, such as community justice boards, to help keep youths from getting caught up in the criminal justice system, she said.

"I just think that our success in all of this has really been an improvement in public safety," she said, "and that's the bottom line."

By the numbers


Number of juveniles in confinement per 100,000 in Arizona in 2001.


Number of juveniles in confinement per 100,000 in Arizona in 2010.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at or at 573-4224.