The drastic decline in the population of the California Youth Authority is one of the great success stories in the state's mostly abortive attempts to reform its criminal justice system.
"The radical decline in the CYA population is one of the state's and nation's best kept secrets," according to a new report [PDF] from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Yet the future of what remains of this venerable state institution will be a key issue faced by whoever is elected governor next week, mainly because of its escalating costs.
Last week, the state announced that it will close the Preston Correctional Facility, the state's oldest and one with a storied history that once held Merle Haggard and former tennis legend Pancho Gonzales.
Rather than being sent to adult facilities, less serious youth offenders are now held in county-level facilities, or supervised by probation officers in their home communities.
According to the new report, the 80-percent reduction in the CYA population – from a peak of 10,122 youth in 1996 to 1,345 today – has been accompanied by a precipitous decline in the youth felony-arrest rate as well.
But the decline in the population has had an unexpected fallout: It has contributed to the enormous costs of incarcerating the remaining offenders who are still held in state facilities.
According to the report, CYA costs have soared from an annual cost of $36,118 per offender in 1996 to a stunning $220,000 today.
The report documents the many contributing factors to the high costs: among others, the burden of maintaining aging facilities; a consent decree that requires more medical, mental health and education services; and state personnel rules which have slowed the process of reducing the CYA workforce.
Where have offenders gone who in the past might have been sent to CYA? Many are held in county juvenile halls and minimum security facilities known as "camps" or "ranches." But the largest increase has come in the population that is under home supervision or probation which includes intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, day reporting or some other form of probation.
Some have argued that the state should shut down the CYA altogether. In an op-ed piece last April in the LA Times, Dan Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, wrote:
The state can no longer afford to prop up a failed system that will continue to drain the California treasury to the detriment of other spending priorities, especially when a viable alternative exists.
But the UC Berkeley/NCCD report makes a convincing case that there is still a need for CYA institutions to handle the state's most serious youthful offenders. County facilities are not set up to handle them, and sending them to adult prisons is also not a viable option:
For now, state facilities provide a needed setting for more serious youth offenders whose needs are not being met at the local level. Without a better option to existing county programs, there is concern that there will be an influx of youth being sent to adult prisons and jails, placement for worse than the CYA itself.
That may be. But in light of the state's still unresolved budget crisis, California lawmakers, including the state's new governor, will have no choice but to either reduce current CYA costs or come up with alternatives to an institution that carries an annual bill of $220,000 per occupant.