Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature have agreed to keep open some state youth correctional facilities, taking some of the gloss off his vision of "bringing government closer to the people."
Hear more on a KQED/California Watch radio report aired on The California Report on public radio stations around the state. To find out about the challenges to provide mental health services to youthful offenders, listen to this report by KQED's Sarah Varney.
David GrossPlaque at entrance to Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility near Stockton, Calif.
The agreement, approved by the Legislature last week with the passage of AB 109, the Criminal Justice Alignment Bill, illustrates that having counties take over functions of the state can present unexpected challenges. In this case, county officials balked at Gov. Brown's plan to have counties handle the 1,200 or so youth now housed in five state youth correctional facilities. All of the inmates – called wards in youth correctional parlance – have committed so called 707(b) offenses, which are serious, mostly violent crimes, ranging from carjacking and arson to rape and murder.
Fifteen years ago, the state's Division of Juvenile Justice – then known as the California Youth Authority – held 10,000 young offenders. But the Farrell lawsuit, brought by the Prison Law Office and other advocates, forced dramatic changes in the treatment of teenagers who've run afoul of the law. For example, many non-violent offenders previously handled by the CYA are now typically served by county-level programs. In addition, intensive treatment and other programs were mandated as part of the settlement of the lawsuit.
But costs to the state have risen to an astonishing $225,000 per offender. Early this year, Gov. Brown suggested that California become the first state in the nation to shut its youth correctional system completely and turn over the remaining wards to the custody of counties.
Dan Macallair, director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said counties can offer everything from high-security and medium-security institutions to an array of community-based interventions, all under one roof.
He believes moving wards to county facilities also spurs innovation. He pointed to counties like Santa Cruz, which have assumed more responsibility for juvenile offenders and diverted almost all of them from state detention. But the county's chief probation officer, Scott MacDonald, said that even his county is likely to need help incarcerating its most violent young offenders from time to time.
One teenage boy awaiting trial in the Santa Cruz facility is a case in point. He has been in and out of juvenile hall for years and he's a member of a Latino street gang. He says he has learned from an older gang member that to truly gain acceptance in the gang, he has to be willing to kill a rival.
"I have to show him I'm willing to take someone's life. Whack someone," he says. "That's just how it goes. Every ‘hood is like that."
If a teen like this were convicted of a violent crime but state juvenile prisons were shuttered, the county would have no place to send him.
"We can't build a facility in a county our size that focuses on one or two kids," he said. "This is a juvenile hall that was designed for short-term detention."
Sara Norman, managing attorney at the Prison Law Office, said many California counties simply aren't prepared to handle violence-prone youth. Despite being a longtime critic of the state's youth facilities, she said, they are still necessary as a last resort.
"In the absence of the counties' capacity to deal with these youth, we think that the state system remains the most viable way to meet their needs," Norman says.
Another problem is that there is no systematic oversight of county programs, and the quality varies tremendously from county to county.
David Gross Youth in counseling session at Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility.
Barry Krisberg, director of the Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law, said if the state were to send the most dangerous offenders to the counties where they came from, California would end up with what he termed "justice by geography."
"Our county juvenile justice system is akin to the Wild West," said. "There are no real standards, and as a result, practices can be good in some places and horrible in other places."
Under the compromise agreed to in the Legislature last week, counties can choose to handle their toughest offenders locally, or pay the state to do it for them. The catch: Funding to pay counties to carry out this plan will depend on voters approving a tax extension in the still uncertain June special election that Brown hopes to call.
For background on this issue, check out my earlier news post here.
Listen to my report on KQED/The California Report here.