California’s Governor Sends Wake-Up Call to the State’s Counties

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In his first move of 2012, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for FY 2012-2013 appears to be part compromise, part wake-up call to the state’s counties, indicating he is serious about closing the state’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) once and for all.

Ideally, this proposal should provide some relief for counties because now there is the opportunity for funding of local juvenile justice programs. The proposed budget will postpone the “budget triggers” and allocate an initial $10 million to counties to plan for juvenile justice realignment, followed by approximately $100 million each year. The catch? No new commitments will be made to DJF as of Jan. 1, 2013 and counties will have no choice but to handle their high- needs and high- risk population locally.

In the last week of 2011, Gov. Brown proposed a measure to deter counties from sending youth to DJF. These “budget triggers” agitated many counties, more specifically those sending disproportionately high numbers of youth to DJF, rather than serving them locally. These counties and related special interest groups were obviously frustrated with Brown’s measure because they were forced to either pay $125,000 annually to keep a youth in DJF or handle them locally without funding.

Handling youthful offenders at the local level is what juvenile justice reformers nationwide have been advocating for years. Extensive research has documented that large institutional settings, when compared to rehabilitative alternatives with family-like settings, are far less effective in changing youth behavior or reducing recidivism. In California, the numbers speak for themselves. On average, more than three quarters of youth recidivate from DJF versus county-based rehabilitative options where recidivism rates are less than 40 percent.

At a time of such fiscal crisis, California can no longer afford to be shortsighted in its juvenile justice policies and practices. It is incredibly expensive to send youth to California’s large out-dated state facilities. California taxpayers, rather than the admitting counties, have been fronting the tab of nearly $200,000 per youth per year. This is not the first time Gov. Brown has made clear his commitment to shut down DJF, but last year juvenile justice realignment got shelved after strong opposition from counties even though reallocation of funding was attached.

In this year’s proposed budget, Gov. Brown declares, the “Administration is committed to working with local governments and stakeholders to ensure a successful transition, and to develop a funding model that provides an appropriate level of resources to house and treat juvenile offenders locally.” It is now up to the counties and other juvenile justice stakeholders to push the Legislature to adopt Brown’s proposal, while funding is again attached.

If the budget is passed, the question becomes how will and how should the funding be allocated?  Because the governor’s proposal is so new, there are currently no specifics as to how the $10 million transitional funding or additionally yearly funding will be distributed or monitored.

Policy bureaus and community organizations invested in juvenile justice issues including the Little Hoover Commission, Legislative Analyst’s Office, Ella Baker Center and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, have been providing solutions to this question since 2008 by advocating for counties to take over responsibility for their youthful offender population.

In order to ensure a more fair distribution and not penalize counties that are already serving their youth locally, juvenile justice realignment funding should be allocated to counties based on juvenile felony arrests rates, not strictly the number of youths they currently send to state facilities. This will support counties with the largest number of high-risk serious youth offenders, rather than disproportionately favoring counties that send high numbers of youth to state facilities.

Additionally, the funds must be monitored to ensure it is designated to the establishment of new comprehensive community-based alternatives emphasizing rehabilitation including renovating juvenile halls and promoting alternatives to incarceration. The models should reflect best-practices stressing mental health therapy, education programs, substance abuse treatment, and/or family involvement and transitional planning.

A well-designed juvenile justice realignment plan, with a multi-year realignment process and sufficient and sustainable funding for counties, is an effective approach to promoting long-term public safety. To prepare, counties need to do an inventory of current programs and services in the community so judges and district attorneys are aware of options for all types of youthful offenders. The opportunity to serve California’s youth in their communities is now in the hands of the Legislature to stand by Gov. Brown’s proposal and move California’s juvenile justice system into the 21st century.


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