Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to abolish the state youth prison system could save hundreds of millions of dollars and quicken the pace of reform at county facilities. But the changes could remove important barriers that keep some juvenile offenders out of adult prisons.
Brown’s plan to close the Division of Juvenile Justice was part of drastic budget cuts he presented last week. If the budget is enacted, the division would stop accepting new wards and close by June 30, 2014, with any remaining offenders transferred to local jurisdictions. The state would save $250 million once the plan is fully implemented, according to the governor’s office.
The changes would do more than simply shift costs and responsibilities from Sacramento to the counties for California’s most dangerous and gang-entrenched youth. Fewer than 1,500 wards remain in decaying, expensive youth correctional facilities that some refer to as “gladiator schools.”
Supporters of the measure say closing the state facilities will improve treatment for young offenders while reducing costs.
“Now that people can be close to home, it will offer great opportunity for family healing and community healing,” said Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center.
“The counties have much better practices. There is a shorter chain of accountability at a local level. We’ve been pushing for this for years. It is an idea whose time has time.”
Daniel Macallair, executive director of Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said the current system of state-run youth prisons is unsustainable.
“You can’t justify spending $234,000 per kid each year on a system that is essentially broken while cutting funding for child care subsidies, higher education and depriving disabled people. You have to make choices somewhere.”
“By getting rid of DJJ, we can focus our time, attention and resources on the county systems and not be consumed by an old system that is long past its service,” Macallair said.
But other experts opposed to the plan said the closure would come at a price.
Barry Krisberg of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice said the state still needs a small facility for older, gang-entrenched youth. His concern is that even if the closure doesn’t immediately send more juvenile offenders to adult lock-ups, the end result could be the same if counties can’t take up the slack.
“It is a difficult population, in terms of violence and serious sex offenses,” he said. “It is my view that the counties are not equipped to adequately provide for these youth. One consequence is we will push more of them into the (adult) prison system.”
Krisberg also worries that some counties may prosecute more juveniles as adults to cope with the hand-off from the state system, sending tougher cases to adult prisons.
David Steinhart of the juvenile justice program at Commonweal said there’s already a trend in that direction, with the number of juveniles tried as adults doubling in California between 2004 and 2009.
“The adult system will have to open new space for kids,” Steinhart said.
But David Macallair said that while there has been a rise in juveniles tried as adults, they are not heading to adult prisons prior to reaching adulthood.
“Even though those cases are being direct-filed in adult court, the youth are ending up in county systems. Judges are not sending them to the dysfunctional adult system,” Macallair said.
Lois Rodriguez, of Riverbank, said her son, Kraig Palacio, was tried for a gang-related crime as an adult but is serving time in a state youth correctional facility. Rodriguez said she had to fight hard to keep her son out of adult prison.
“I fought for … getting him placed here instead of prison, that was my biggest thing,” Rodriguez said. “I was lucky that his lawyer, his third lawyer that we got, went along with it.”
“These kids are being tried as an adult, and they're being thrown in the prison system. They're being institutionalized. It's sad, it's really sad.”