Trimming the Juvenile Justice Fat

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California Gov. Jerry Brown was recently quoted telling the state Legislature to “man up” on his proposed budget cuts and yet, when it comes to juvenile justice, it seems the governor consistently bends under pressure.

Unfortunately, the effects of his juvenile justice compromise will soon be felt by all California residents, according to a new CJCJ publication. With scarce and finite resources, the governor’s decision to grant a reprieve for state youth correctional facilities, in his May revised budget, creates an additional strain on already scantily-funded state services.

This is the second year the governor has removed a proposal for full juvenile justice realignment from his budget. In FY 2011-12, the budget allocated counties $200,000 per state-confined youth, to increase their capacity for serving high-need juvenile offenders. After lobbying opposition from law enforcement interest groups, this proposal was pulled from the budget, while severe cuts were made to the state university systems, department of developmental services, in-house support services and other state-run programs.

Then in January 2012, the governor pulled his mid-year budget trigger cuts due to an increasing revenue shortfall. These triggers cut expansive areas of social and public service sectors, including care-giving to the blind, disabled, elderly and autistic populations, amounting to $611,131,000 reduction in funding to serve California’s most vulnerable populations. An additional $302 million was deducted from the state’s investment in higher education. Yet, the governor granted a reprieve for the state youth correctional facilities trigger, which would have required counties to pay 60 percent of the cost of housing youths there (currently they pay only a nominal fee); losing a projected saving of $67.7 million.

Now the governor is proposing some small scale changes to the state youth correctional budget which are projected to save the state $24.8 million, while simultaneously announcing $4.1 billion worth of additional cuts to the same service sectors that suffered through the triggers early this year.

Ironically, these same services fundamentally reinforce public safety: education, adequate medical care, mental health treatment and supportive living programs are recognized components for reducing crime and recidivism in the community. In comparison, the isolated institutional design of the state youth correctional system is a recognized failure nationwide.

One has to wonder what drives the governor’s priorities. California recognizes that it is in an extreme fiscal bind, and that everyone needs to cut the fat. Everyone that is, except juvenile justice. The state continues to operate an unnecessary dual system to serve very few youth from about half of California’s counties. Even if you believe that the state system works well (refuted by the most recently available data); in an environment of finite resources that is simply not enough. The question is: is it necessary? Or more accurately, is it more necessary than, for example, literacy classes for adults, K-12 education for children, higher education for the economically deprived, and legal protection for the elderly and disabled? Choosing to maintain the state youth correctional system means choosing to cut elsewhere.

Law enforcement interest groups continue to encourage the governor to “cut from other places.” However, if California wants to protect our communities it needs to teach those youth offenders how to live among us safely. Even with the best intentions, teaching a youth to survive in an institutional and artificial environment does not provide them with the necessary skills to live in their communities. The most essential component of rehabilitation is in re-entry: what happens when a youth goes home. That happens locally, through the programs that are suffering extreme hardship now under the governor’s new budget regime.

I recognize that making state budget cuts is challenging; all sectors of government, communities and individual households are financially strained. In a climate of resource scarcity where social and educational services are already cut to the bone, and keeping one program means cutting elsewhere; how does one decide what to keep and what to eliminate? Now more than ever Californians are looking to the governor to make sensible decisions about what is necessary to protect the lives of Californians.

My money is on the community-based provision of treatment and education. Or at least, it should be.

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