Gov. Jerry Brown's grand vision of "bringing government closer to the people" has run into a snag – at least when it comes to the state's youth correctional system.
If his plan had gone through, California would have been the first state in the country to abolish its youth prison system. In his budget proposal earlier this year, Brown proposed shutting down the state's last remaining youth correctional facilities, and turning over the 1,200 young people in state institutions – where they are called wards rather than inmates – to counties to handle.
To help counties cover their costs, Brown promised them funding from the tax extensions he hopes voters will approve in the still uncertain June special election.
But there has been tremendous pushback to Brown's plan from some county officials who say they aren't prepared to absorb these youthful offenders in their local juvenile justice systems.
Brown backed off. His administration is now proposing giving counties the option of sending their most dangerous offenders to state institutions. As is currently the practice, they would only be able to send youth who have committed 707(b) offenses [PDF] under California's Welfare and Institutions Code, which include murder, rape, kidnapping, serious assaults, robbery, drive-by shootings and arson. But under Brown's latest proposal, counties couldn't cherry pick which ones they would send. They would have to send all of them or none of them.
County officials and youth criminal justice advocates are in the dark over how this plan would work, and details have yet to be released. But what it almost certainly means is that some state youth corrections institutions will stay open, at least for the foreseeable future. Currently there are five state institutions, with one (Preston Youth Correctional Facility) slated for closure in June.
As the new Brown administration spelled out in its January budget proposal, the closure of the remaining four institutions was intended to be part of:
a vast and historic realignment of government services in California, reversing a 30-year trend that has seen decision-making and budget authority move from local government to the State Capitol. To the extent feasible, this trend will now be reversed and power returned to cities, counties, special districts, and school boards, allowing decisions to be made by those who have the direct knowledge and interest to ensure that local needs are met in the most sensible way.
The irony is that the youth correctional system has until now been a stunningly successful example of how counties could take over services previously provided by the state. As a result of declining youth crime rates, the landmark 2003 Farrell lawsuit [PDF], and subsequent state legislation (SB 81), the number of youth held in state youth prisons has dropped dramatically – from a peak of about 10,000 in 1996 to about 1,200 today [PDF]. Most counties are now handling youth that in the past they would routinely have sent to expensive state facilities, while the state has the job of handling the most violent and dangerous.
But the reliance on the state to handle the most difficult offenders varies tremendously [PDF] from county to county. In December 2010, for example, Santa Cruz had seven youth in state lockup, while neighboring Monterey County had 43. Los Angeles County, with 370, had by far the largest, followed by Kern County with 100, and Fresno County with 85.
Several counties, such as Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Diego, provide exemplary programs, implementing variations of the so-called "Missouri model" that emphasizes treatment in small groups and alternatives to incarcerations. Although they still have a ways to go in certain areas, the state institutions have also made significant strides under the watchful eye of a supervisor appointed by the Alameda County Superior Court.
The problem is that there is no systematic oversight of county programs, and the quality varies tremendously from county to county, as does their reliance on the state's remaining correctional facilities. "Our county juvenile justice system is akin to the Wild West," said Barry Krisberg, director of the Earl Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley Law School. "Here there are no real standards, and as a result, practices can be good in some places and horrible in other places."
He said if the state sent the most dangerous offenders to the counties where they came from, California would end up with what he terms "justice by geography." He explained:
The state Legislature has been reluctant to enforce any clear standards, and as a result how you get treated will be radically different depending on where you end up. If you get locked up in San Diego, you will probably get pretty decent treatment. If you get locked up in Los Angeles, you will be in some of the worst conditions in this country.
Clearly closing the state's youth prisons would most directly affect those counties that rely heavily on them to handle their most difficult youth.
"We are trying to keep these kids closer to home, but we have that very narrow group of kids that are very violent serious offenders who would stretch us further than we could go," said Manuel Real, Monterey County's chief probation office, who expressed relief at Brown's decision to modify his original proposal. "We have pretty much stretched our system to capacity."
Even officials in Santa Cruz County which is acclaimed for an array of programs that keep youth out of state, or even county, lockup, worry about having to manage without any state facilities. One reason is that Santa Cruz sends so few dangerous offenders each year to state institutions that it would not be feasible economically for the county to have to create a secure facility just for them.
"I don't subscribe to the view that we can abolish facilities for serious offenders altogether," said Santa Cruz County chief probation officer Scott MacDonald.
That view is echoed by Sara Norman, managing attorney of the Prison Law Center, which filed the Farrell lawsuit that triggered the dramatic decrease in youth held at state institutions.
"Ideally the counties would have the resources to address the needs of these youth so they could stay close to their families and communities," she said. "The reality is that many counties are in far worse shape than the state system now."
She and others say the solution should not be a county vs. state system, but perhaps something in between, such as creating regional centers to handle the most difficult youth. These could be run by a county to handle violent offenders from several counties, or it could be run by the state. But whatever arrangement is made, said Krisberg, "the key is going to be clear state level standards and regulation."
Dan Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, worries that Gov. Brown's decision to back off his proposal to shut down youth facilities will let counties that have dragged their feet on reforming their juvenile justice programs off the hook.
"The concern I have is that it will allow counties that are currently underperforming and have become overly reliant on committing youth to state institutions to continue do so without forcing them to change," he said. "In the field of corrections, necessity is the mother of invention."