California Considers Final Closure of its State Youth Corrections System

Posted March 17, 2012
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog californiaconsidersfinalclosures 2012

Steve Liss for the Casey Foundation

Cal­i­for­nia made head­lines in 2007 with a her­ald­ed juve­nile jus­tice reform that banned all com­mit­ments of non-vio­lent juve­niles to its dis­cred­it­ed state youth prison sys­tem. The reform left the state sys­tem open only for youth con­vict­ed of seri­ous and vio­lent crimes and includ­ed a hefty annu­al pay­out of about $100 mil­lion to Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties to super­vise the shift­ed caseload.

In the wake of this reform, Cal­i­for­nia has closed most of its state train­ing schools, drop­ping the count from 11 big insti­tu­tions to just three still open today. By the start of 2012, the state-incar­cer­at­ed youth pop­u­la­tion had declined to bare­ly 1,000 inmates —from an aston­ish­ing 10,000 youth pris­on­ers in 1996.

Advo­cates and key pol­i­cy­mak­ers are now call­ing for a total shut­down of the remain­ing state oper­a­tion. One of their strongest argu­ments is the absurd­ly high cost of keep­ing it open—about $200,000 per youth per year.

Last year, Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown opened the bud­get sea­son by propos­ing to take the state com­plete­ly out of the youth cor­rec­tions busi­ness— clos­ing all remain­ing Divi­sion of Juve­nile Jus­tice (DJJ) insti­tu­tions and send­ing their occu­pants, with $240 mil­lion in state funds, to coun­ties under a mas­sive realign­ment” plan.

Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties rebelled against the pro­pos­al. Pro­ba­tion chiefs and oth­er coun­ty oppo­nents cit­ed pub­lic safe­ty con­cerns and a lack of local capac­i­ty to con­fine and serve this high-risk, high-needs juve­nile offend­er population.

A com­pro­mise plan—allowing coun­ties to repur­chase space in a small­er state operation—failed to gain trac­tion. A par­al­lel and much big­ger realign­ment package—the court-man­dat­ed realign­ment of 30,000 adult pris­on­ers to local jails—consumed stake­hold­er atten­tion and left the governor’s DJJ pro­pos­al dead in the water for 2011.

Gov­er­nor tries again for total DJJ shutdown

This Jan­u­ary, Gov­er­nor Brown rein­tro­duced his plan to close the state Divi­sion of Juve­nile Jus­tice. This time, his bud­get pro­pos­al was more ther­a­peu­tic in tone, stat­ing that the effort must be done thought­ful­ly and care­ful­ly to pro­vide the best place­ment and treat­ment options for youth.”

To ener­gize the process, he pro­posed an imme­di­ate $10 mil­lion in plan­ning funds for coun­ties to design options and respons­es for the realigned case­load. He set Jan­u­ary 2013 as a tar­get date for clos­ing DJJ intake.

Once again, coun­ties barked a cho­rus of oppo­si­tion, with no” posi­tions from asso­ci­a­tions rep­re­sent­ing pro­ba­tion chiefs, coun­ty super­vi­sors, and pros­e­cu­tors. The gov­er­nor, with close ties to local law enforce­ment, has retreat­ed in the face of this oppo­si­tion. At least, he has not aggres­sive­ly pur­sued the shut­down plan. Polit­i­cal­ly, for now, the pro­posed total clo­sure of DJJ in Cal­i­for­nia appears to be gridlocked.

Advo­cates of reform, mean­while, are eager to break the log­jam and press for­ward with the clo­sure plan. The Cen­ter for Juve­nile and Crim­i­nal Jus­tice has coun­tered claims of insuf­fi­cient local capac­i­ty with reports doc­u­ment­ing thou­sands of unused, avail­able local beds that could, in the­o­ry, be con­vert­ed to absorb the cur­rent DJJ population.

Ques­tions raised about coun­ty capac­i­ty to serve the DJJ caseload

The hot-but­ton top­ic for juve­nile jus­tice reform in Cal­i­for­nia is def­i­nite­ly the end-stage realign­ment of DJJ. How­ev­er, Cal­i­for­nia faces oth­er juve­nile jus­tice chal­lenges as well. In fact, the state train­ing school rep­re­sents but a small frac­tion of a much larg­er youth cus­tody pop­u­la­tion spread through­out coun­ty deten­tion cen­ters (8,000 beds) and juve­nile pro­ba­tion camps (5,000 beds). Near­ly 130,000 chil­dren move through these local juve­nile jus­tice facil­i­ties each year.

The Prison Law Office, which kick-start­ed the down­siz­ing of DJJ with win­ning lit­i­ga­tion against the state, has filed suits against Sacra­men­to and San Joaquin coun­ties on con­di­tions of con­fine­ment in local juve­nile facil­i­ties. The fed­er­al Depart­ment of Jus­tice has an ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into inci­dents of abuse and mis­treat­ment in Los Ange­les Coun­ty juve­nile halls and pro­ba­tion camps.

While some Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties have mod­i­fied their facil­i­ties and pro­grams to serve youth returned from DJJ under the 2007 realign­ment, crit­ics are still ask­ing whether coun­ties can do a decent job with the remain­ing state-com­mit­ted population.

Many of the youth now in DJJ have, in addi­tion to seri­ous offense pro­files, mul­ti­ple sub­stance abuse and men­tal health treat­ment needs. Many are old­er youth who can­not be mixed with younger chil­dren in local facil­i­ties under cur­rent law. No coher­ent plan for coun­ty-run region­al cen­ters or inter-coun­ty place­ments has yet emerged in the dis­cus­sion about final shut­ter­ing of the state system.

The risk of turn­ing DJJ youth into adult prisoners

Advo­cates have anoth­er big wor­ry about DJJ clo­sure: the risk that most of the youth now enter­ing the Divi­sion of Juve­nile Jus­tice may wind up in adult courts and state prisons.

By def­i­n­i­tion, almost all DJJ youth have offens­es that qual­i­fy them for direct file” by pros­e­cu­tors in adult court. A com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor is that under Cal­i­for­nia law, DJJ juris­dic­tion and cus­tody can extend to age 25, while local juve­nile court juris­dic­tion is capped at age 21.

Pros­e­cu­tors are eager to keep DJJ as a reha­bil­i­ta­tive option to state prison for seri­ous juve­nile offend­ers. But if DJJ clos­es, pros­e­cu­tors have lit­tle incen­tive to file adult-eli­gi­ble cas­es in local juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems hav­ing lim­it­ed secu­ri­ty, spot­ty pro­gram­ming, and short­er con­fine­ment time.

Sev­er­al long­time DJJ reform advo­cates (includ­ing Youth Law Cen­ter and Com­mon­weal) have hinged their sup­port for DJJ clo­sure on the devel­op­ment of new local sen­tenc­ing options and oth­er incen­tives for pros­e­cu­tors to choose juve­nile over adult court in cas­es that could be filed either way. This is a clo­sure plan­ning chal­lenge that has a long way to go.

All in all, the last mile on the long road to clos­ing California’s youth prison sys­tem is indeed strewn with obsta­cles. Realign­ing this final state case­load of high-risk and high-needs youth to coun­ties is a more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge than the realign­ment deal cut in 2007 for non-vio­lent offend­ers in state care.

Nego­ti­a­tions between state and local stake­hold­ers will con­tin­ue over the next sev­er­al months. At present, it is hard to pre­dict what the out­come will be for California’s Divi­sion of Juve­nile Jus­tice in 2012.

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