Still, a Promise of Reform for California’s Juvenile Justice System


In January 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a historic reform of the state juvenile justice system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), by giving counties full responsibility for managing their offender population.

This initiative, named Juvenile Justice Realignment, would have ended state intake of youth by 2013 and closed all facilities by 2015. The governor subsequently rescinded this proposal due to aggressive lobbying by state law enforcement associations.

However, the promise of a more sensible juvenile justice system remains within the 2012-2013 state budget, signed into law in July. Some counties stand poised to take advantage of the opportunity; and in partnership with foundations, they are leading the way to a 21st century juvenile justice system.

This year, a coalition of reform-minded organizations successfully reframed policy discussion across the state, despite strong opposition. While Gov. Brown dropped his original realignment proposal, he introduced three key juvenile justice reforms in its place. These join with larger concerns about county-level responsibility and the disproportionate cost for maintaining a fiscally irresponsible system. The measures will save the state $24.8 million.

California’s reforms include a new fee structure requiring counties to pay $24,000 annually per youth housed at DJF facilities. This fee challenges counties to reconsider how they manage high-risk youth. Previous reports demonstrate the exorbitant cost of maintaining DJF, despite the high recidivism rate for youth released from state custody.

Admittedly, this fee is significantly lower than the $125,000 fee originally proposed by Gov. Brown, which would have totaled $67.7 million. The governor issued a subsequent reprieve on collecting these fees, while cutting funds across other state services. However, the $24,000 fee does require state-dependent counties to assume a more equitable share of the cost, given their higher use of DJF.

The 2012-2013 budget also reforms detrimental DJF administrative practices. It ends “time adds,” whereby DJF authorities punished youth by extending the date of future parole board meetings. This practice prolonged commitment time, but ignored the underlying mental health or behavioral issues for high-risk youth. It also reduces the maximum age for DJF-committed youth to 23 years old from 25. As with “time adds,” this limits extended confinement time and brings California more in line with the national average maximum age of 20.

However, those on the front lines of juvenile justice — California’s 58 counties, must lead this reform effort. The state cannot simply tear down DJF nor offload high-risk youth to ill-equipped counties. Instead, reform must foster local innovation and capacity building. Some counties are partnering with private foundations to do just that.

The Sierra Health Foundation is one such private foundation and recently introduced their Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI). This facilitates county self-assessment procedures, expert assistance, and funding streams for a more effective juvenile justice system.

PYJI targets crossover youth, those previously involved with the welfare system and now in the juvenile justice system. Such high-risk youth often spring from a history of traumatic and abusive experiences. PYJI reframes these youth as community assets, with potential to better their neighborhoods. The initiative also identifies wraparound service delivery and trauma-informed care as the innovative model practices to best address these youths’ needs, while potentially improving operational capacity.

PYJI uses grant funding to improve county-level practices and seed innovation. The Sierra Health Foundation first gives applicant counties the resources and technical assistance for a one-year planning phase, followed by a multi-year grant to those accepted into the program.

A technical assistance team works with local sites to foster model practices throughout this process. The initiative also brings together participants for cross-county dialogue.

This conversation ensures reform is not embargoed, just as PYJI facilitates relationships across stakeholder groups. A grant solely to probation departments neither serves public safety, nor does it lower recidivism rates.

Comprehensive juvenile justice reform is multi-faceted. First, the state must eliminate the recognized failures of DJF. Gov. Brown’s budget, amid growing political momentum, shows this to be increasingly the case.

Beyond this state activity, California’s counties and nonprofits mark the way for innovative model practices. Both demonstrate a new understanding of the values necessary for serving California’s at-risk youth and a promise for responsible juvenile justice realignment.

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