Selena Teji On California’s Broken Juvenile Detention System

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In 1858, the San Francisco Industrial School, California’s first large juvenile facility opened its doors and ushered in a new era of large dormitory-style institutions that would plague California to the present day.  Rife with scandal, abuse, violence and a significant deficit of programming, congregate care institutions have proven a failed model since the 19th century. While Missouri and Washington have abandoned this broken system and rebuilt their juvenile justice systems anew, focusing on smaller therapeutic regional facilities; California continues to fixate on an archaic system with large training schools that cannot be repaired.

Currently, California operates a dual system of juvenile justice — probation, group homes, ranches and camps are provided by its 58 counties, while the state provides youth prisons reserved for adolescents who have committed a serious or violent offense as defined in the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code.

All parole and reentry services are provided by the counties. Currently, there are only 1,193 youths housed at the state level, approximately 190 of them are juveniles tried as adults but who are too young to be housed in adult prison.

The state youth prisons, operated by the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF, formerly the California Youth Authority), have a devastating history. In 1996, California housed approximately 10,000 juveniles in its youth prisons, at more than 150 percent its capacity. As with all overcrowded correctional institutions nation-wide, these facilities were rampant with violence, gang activity and abuse. Programming was minimal, and suicide rates were high.

In 2003, after a string of investigations and public outcry, a lawsuit was brought against the state demanding it improve its conditions to a constitutionally-mandated level of care. This was followed in 2007 by Senate Bill 81, requiring that only the highest risk offenders could be housed in the state facilities, resulting in a dramatic decrease in its population, to 1,193 youth today.

Seven years after the court ordered the state to reform its facilities, California is still struggling to meet its mandate. While progress has been made in reducing its population and improving its medical care, many of the needed reforms have not happened.

 According to a recent 2011 audit, incarcerated youth with mental health needs are receiving education in closets, showers and storerooms due to inadequate staffing and high levels of ward violence, if they receive education at all. Many youth are housed in confinement for 23 hours at a time, violating institutional policies and “willfully disobeying” the court’s order. On Oct. 27, 2011, the court will decide if DJF will be held in contempt of court for its continued inappropriate use of isolation.

Since the 1980’s, California has known that the optimal way to serve this high-risk youth population is to deliver programs locally and in smaller facilities. Individual counties such as San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz have already developed and implemented effective interventions locally and currently serve this population with high rates of success. By innovative use of Medicaid funding for example, San Francisco County has been able to provide specialized mental health services to at-risk youth, avoiding reliance on incarceration or out-of-home placement.

The state, the courts, national experts and advocates all agreed on what is needed. A model juvenile justice system emphasizes alternatives to incarceration, local community-based services and evidence-based programs that target the highest-needs youth. Individual counties should collaborate to provide a cohesive and consistent approach to juvenile justice statewide, and California’s state role should be limited to monitoring, funding and coordinating these county efforts.

Why then has it not happened? In February of this year Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the elimination of the DJF and realignment of all juvenile offenders to the counties. However, concern about county capacity fueled by interest groups such as the California District Attorneys Association, and an ingrained institutional culture has prevented California from breaking the cycle of youth incarceration and state-dependence.  Rather, California continues to invest in an archaic and harmful state-managed juvenile justice system in the hopes that it can be reformed, at the annual cost of more than $224,000 per incarcerated youth.

California is clinging to a broken and irreparable system. Instead, it should abandon the derelict institutional model, and build a more meaningful and responsible approach to change.

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