The De-Incarceration of California’s Juvenile Justice System

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The juvenile justice system in California has been evolving faster than most other parts of  the country.  While Missouri, Texas and other states have reduced their youth prison populations, California has made the most drastic reductions. At its peak in 1996, California housed more than 10,000 adolescents in its youth prisons. Today there are 1,096 youth held in just four facilities with one of those scheduled to close in a little more than a month.

The idea of de-incarceration is not new. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the closure of Massachusetts’ youth training schools. Dr. Jerome G. Miller, then commissioner of youth corrections in Massachusetts implemented sweeping reforms, transferring more than 1,500 adolescents out of youth prison and into community-based alternatives. Subsequent research revealed that when youth are not subject to the harsh conditions of institutional prison environments, they are less prone to serious and violent behavior upon release. We’ve known since the late 1970s, then, that well- implemented community- based treatment alternatives are more effective at reducing recidivism.

Today, after decades of de-incarceration, juvenile crime is at an all time low both nationally and in California. Contrary to popular belief, the streets and our communities are safer when more adolescents are present. This is great news for society, and signals an opportunity to end the use of institutional monolithic structures such as California’s youth prisons for good.

In fact, with the fiscal crisis weighing heavily on the minds of legislators across the country, the option to embrace local evidence-based programs that are often cheaper than maintaining the revolving door of mass incarceration seems all the more viable. Even conservative think tanks and lobbying organizations are beginning to support incarceration alternatives.

While Californiahas made huge strides into juvenile de-incarceration it still needs to take its final step.  Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to close the state youth prisons earlier this year, only to have the plan shelved at the last stage of the budget process in June. However, he may get another opportunity soon. On December 15, budget trigger measures may come into effect that could again shape the face of juvenile justice in California. If the budget comes up short more than $2 billion will be cut from various areas, including state youth prisons. California counties will be faced with a choice: Pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to house serious juvenile offenders in youth prison, or serve them at the county-level.

While a handful of state-dependent counties in Californiahave clung to the decrepit and broken state youth prison system, most have already begun preparing for the possible juvenile realignment.  Renewing Juvenile Justice, a 2011 report commissioned by Sierra Health Foundation, provides a juvenile justice reform implementation plan forCalifornia that emphasizes various counties’ efforts to improve outcomes and provide services for high-risk adolescent offenders. It promotes collaboration across juvenile justice, social services, mental health, and education agencies and suggests ways to maximize existing funding streams.

California may have no choice but to lead the way to a more effective, safer and humane juvenile justice system. Even if not, California and other states across the country should take stock of the unprecedented juvenile crime decline in conjunction with existing de-incarceration rates and begin to implement innovative best practices at the local level.


3 thoughts on “The De-Incarceration of California’s Juvenile Justice System

  1. Thank you for your comments.

    California’s juvenile prison size has decreased since its peak in 1996 for a number of reasons: in 1996, sliding scale county fees were imposed to house low-level offenders in youth prisons; in 2000, Proposition 21 allowed prosecutors more access to try youth in the adult system, and JJCPA provided counties with funds to implement local youth programs; in 2004, the state signed a consent decree as part of the Farrell lawsuit, acknowledging the egregious conditions of its facilities; and in 2007, SB 81 banned future commitments of low-level youth offenders. In addition, certain Judges and Probation Chiefs refused to send youth to DJF after investigations into conditions of care conducted by the Inspector General’s Office in the early 2000’s.

    Serious and violent youth offenders make up a small percentage of the overall juvenile justice population. They could be served in a separate and secure unit of county facilities that would ensure access to local treatment programs and their families, without endangering the community or low-level youth offenders.

  2. Chidren live in a make believe world. And in most cases their acts are inexplicable. This is traceable to their mental capacity. A Criminal Justice System that recognises this truism and attempts to develop a juvenile criminal justice that is not characterised with just deserts or retribution is a quite-essential system. But there is still an area in juvenile criminal justice that requires a re-examination. This has to do with the doctrine of doli incapax and childrens’ criminal responsibility. The question here is that is it still a good law to have recourse to the henious nature of an act by a child in determining criminal responsibility? An example here, is the killing by two children of a child somewhere in Colorado. Senseless. Intent completely lacking. But because murder was involved the prosecution treated the children as adults. If such an act was committed by an adult the defence would have been that of insanity. This is because the motive was completely non-existence. Perhaps the two children involved in that killing were driven by fantansy and senseless adventurism. But a live was lost. And the state has to balance that with the mental capacity of the children, and criminal responsibility. I think this area needs to be further explored.

  3. The 9000 juveniles were transferred to our overcrowded prisons – either to serve out the rest of their sentence or they committed new crimes result in their 1st adult conviction and adult incarceration. So, it the idea that we house the 16 year old rapist and murderer at Juvenile Hall with the kid who stole a vehicle? Or where are you suggesting we place our worst juvenile offenders? Call me crazy, but I would like to have a separate, more secure facility for the most violent of our juveniles – to protect us and the less serious juvenile offenders.