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California’s budget crisis may be good news for deep-end reform

California Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to save the state a half-billion dollars by shutting down the Division of Juvenile Justice and transferring the system’s juveniles to county facilities.

But the proposal is raising concerns among advocates about whether counties are prepared to house and effectively treat an influx of youth convicted of serious and violent crimes and whether more of those youth will be charged as adults.

The governor’s new budget proposal calls for eliminating the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice by June 30, 2014, and transferring jurisdiction for juveniles in DJJ facilities to local governments.

The current system houses only youth convicted of the most serious and violent crimes. It is costing California more than $200,000 per youth per year, according to the governor’s budget documents.

The change will save the state $78 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year and $250 million when it is fully implemented, according to the governor’s budget documents.

The state’s juvenile population has decreased over the past decade from about 10,000 youth to less than 1,300. The decline was partly due to a growing reluctance among counties to send youth to the state’s violent and unsafe facilities.

A bill passed in 2007 accelerated DJJ’s downsizing. That legislation shifted 1,000 nonviolent youth from state to county control.

The state also began transferring the responsibility for supervising new juvenile parolees to counties in January. The state is providing $15,000 per year per parolee to county probation departments for the additional responsibilities.

But the changes have some juvenile justice advocates concerned. One of the primary worries is whether county facilities are in any better shape to handle the most-troubled youth.

Los Angeles County, for example, has been the scene of abuses and recently reached a settlement to reform how it treats juveniles with disabilities. The county has more than one-third of the juveniles currently in DJJ facilities.

Some reform advocates also worry that the closure of the state’s secure facilities will make prosecutors more likely to charge juveniles who commit serious crimes as adults rather than send them to juvenile hall or group homes.

Oversight is another issue. An ongoing court case allows lawyers and juvenile justice reformers access to state facilities. Lawyers and advocates worry that similar access may not be available at county facilities, especially remote ones.