Unprecedented declines in youth crime, combined with state policies designed to restrict state institutional commitments, have caused California’s youth incarceration rates to plummet, as I wrote in a previous column. The crashing number of confined youths is not limited to the state institutions, but is also true for the state’s sprawling network of county-based juvenile justice facilities. With the decline in county youth confinement, more than 5,000 high- and medium-security institutional beds now sit empty and idle.
This decline in county institutional populations is one of the unheralded stories about California’s juvenile justice trends, and it presents policymakers with a rare opportunity. Because there are only approximately 700 juvenile court-committed youth remaining in the three state youth correctional facilities, California is well positioned to eliminate these relics of a bygone era and move towards a 21st-century system of localized juvenile justice.
The arguments for shuttering the remaining three, state-run youth correctional facilities are clear and incontrovertible. Despite the recent ending of the 15-year-old Farrell lawsuit, reports from youth within these state facilities affirm that the institutions remain violent with a consistent gang presence. Assertions made by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) administrators that the system is now fixed ring hollow as they echo claims made repeatedly over the decades following previous reform efforts.
Since 1997, California’s 58 counties have constructed 72 new high- and medium-security juvenile facilities, and the state approved funding for eight facility projects in 2015. Due to this unprecedented period of facility expansion, California’s counties now have a plethora of vacant institutional beds, with most facilities operating at only one-third of capacity. Stanislaus County, for example, with a total population of about 525,500, has a 118-bed juvenile hall to house preadjudicated youth. It currently holds 61 youths. The county also built a new, 60-bed, high-security, post-disposition facility in 2013. The post-disposition facility currently houses 44 youths while the county is increasing its commitments to the state institutions.
The passage of state Senate Bill 81 in 2007, which restricted counties from sending certain categories of youth to the state institutions, unleashed a period of innovative county reforms. The reality of no longer being able to commit certain youths to the state forced counties to develop new institutional and noninstitutional programs.
San Bernardino, a county long known for sending large numbers of youth to state facilities, developed the Gateway Program as a secure custody alternative to the state facilities. The program was set up in a renovated wing of the county juvenile hall, where a probation officer with a background in social work was assigned the task of managing the program.
Using available knowledge about what constitutes good correctional intervention, the county developed an integrated continuum of services that included high-security to medium-security custody followed by community-based case management. The program accessed an array of local-based services — including mental health and substance abuse interventions.
By partnering with other county agencies and local nonprofit community-based organizations, San Bernardino was able to offer a range of services that the state correctional system could never hope to match.
Similar programs were developed in other counties such as Santa Clara, where the William F. James Boys Ranch was converted from a traditional congregate custodial institution to a Missouri-style facility designed for more personalized treatment in a normalized environment. San Francisco soon followed with a similar restructuring of its Log Cabin Ranch School. Santa Cruz County, long recognized as a national model on juvenile justice practice, remains an example of what can be accomplished at the local level.
While many county juvenile justice systems in California remain mired in past practices, the counties that have implemented significant reforms serve as models for the rest of the state. Many argue that a state system is necessary because counties are not ready or able to assume sole responsibility for their most high-needs youth.
This is a false argument as it discounts the historic failures of the state system and does not take into account the reforms already implemented by innovative counties. If California is to achieve a 21st-century juvenile justice system, it must overcome the political, structural and programmatic obstacles that block the path of true reform.
This is the second of a three-part series on California juvenile justice reform. The next column will examine the politics of juvenile justice reform in the Golden State.
Daniel Macallair is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and author of a new book, “After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of 21st Century Reform.”