Report: State Should Shut Down Youth Prison System – Governor’s plan gains new support, but many prosecutors remain opposed
By Trey Bundy | The Bay Citizen —
California lawmakers should phase out the state’s youth prison system and begin housing and treating all juvenile offenders in county programs, according to recommendations released this week by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Citing “merit on both policy and fiscal grounds,” the report urged the Legislature to develop funding proposals that would support Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to stop sending youth to the Division of Juvenile Justice next year. The plan — which seeks to close the prisons altogether by 2015 — would make California first in the nation to eliminate state-run youth prisons.
Because county probation departments would be responsible for juvenile offenders at every stage of rehabilitation, the report said, they would be better positioned than the state to help young wards transition back into their communities and provide services designed to reduce recidivism.
“Additionally, county facilities would usually be closer to a ward’s family and local community, factors generally associated with more successful rehabilitation,” the report said.
The LAO report noted that Brown’s plan calls for ongoing state funding for counties, but does not specify the amount or how the money would be spent. The current state system costs taxpayers $240 million each year.
The implications of shutting down DJJ have been hotly debated since Brown proposed the idea in January 2011. Critics say the state’s failure to fix the system’s crumbling infrastructure and a lack of quality rehabilitation services have rendered DJJ obsolete.
David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program in Marin County, applauded the LAO report, calling it “a road map for the final realignment of youth prisons in California.”
“In this final round of DJJ shutdown, we’ve had a lack of detail and a lack of a comprehensive plan,” Steinhart said. “The LAO has taken the governor’s plan and organized it and formatted it for getting the state out of the youth prison system.”
But opponents of the Brown’s proposal — including associations of probation officers and district attorneys — question the state’s willingness to allocate enough resources to counties and doubt the proposal can work without compromising public safety.
Some prosecutors have signaled that, absent adequate local facilities statewide, they would file more juvenile cases in adult court in an effort to ensure that violent teenagers and young sex offenders are safely incarcerated. Aiming to address those concerns, the LAO report suggested allowing judges to impose longer sentences on young offenders and extending the age limit for youths in the juvenile court system from 21 to 25 years old.
According to the state report, the average age of a DJJ ward is 19 years old. Two-thirds of young offenders are incarcerated for assault or robbery and 87 percent are black or Latino. Fifteen percent are sex offenders, 30 percent have mental health needs and 66 percent require drug treatment.
Since 1996, DJJ’s population has dwindled from a peak of about 10,000 offenders to its current 1,100, largely due to a sharp decrease in felony juvenile arrests in California and legislation prohibiting counties from sending all but the most dangerous youth to the state system. The state has closed eight of DJJ’s facilities since 2003, leaving three in operation.
Wednesday’s report also pointed out that county juvenile facilities currently have 4,500 unused beds, more than three times the number needed to absorb a population the size of the current DJJ population.
“Yeah, there are beds, but beds are not the same as well-trained staff and programs,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who monitors court-mandated reforms in the state-run institutions. “None of the counties are up to snuff in dealing with serious and violent juvenile offenders.”
Many say the same of DJJ, which has been operating under a court order to improve living conditions since 2005, when an Alameda County lawsuit brought to light rampant abuse and poor education and treatment programs inside the state facilities. Because many counties lack services designed for violent youth and sex offenders, some observers worry that shifting responsibility to the local level could result in similar lawsuits across the state.
“It’s a very radical proposal,” Krisberg said. “If you go down this road, it seems to me to be inviting litigation against counties: coming to a courtroom near you.”
While the governor’s plan calls for DJJ to stop accepting new offenders on Jan. 1, 2013, the LAO report suggested pushing that date back six months and urged lawmakers to begin addressing concerns raised by experts and stakeholders, including funding, adult court filings and the quality of local programs.
Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, called the report “thoughtful and balanced,” but added: “From talking to people in probation and people who defend kids in court, I think there’s a sense that there should still be a tiny capacity on the state level for a certain demographic of kids.”