A Partnership for Sensible Juvenile Justice Reform in California

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Brian Goldstein

California thrives because of a rich diversity of cultures and people. The state’s 58 counties are the fabric of this greater socioeconomic patchwork. Given this diversity, each county faces both unique challenges and varied resources. To be effective, state policymakers must craft policy tailored to these nuances.

This proves especially true for the state’s juvenile justice system, where California’s counties serve increasingly as models of innovation. The state must adopt policies that foster this innovation and lay a foundation of continued success resulting in better outcomes for young people and achieving the long-term goals of public safety.

California’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), continues to grapple over long-standing difficulties with rehabilitative programming, youth safety, aging facilities and high operational cost. With these challenges, policymakers and juvenile justice stakeholders increasingly recognize the need for substantial reform. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-13 budget signaled a new course for DJF, by requiring counties to pay a $24,000 annual fee for each young person admitted to the state system.

Taking additional steps to better serve justice-involved youth, state Assembly member Reginald “Reggie” Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles’ 59th District has proposed an innovative bill that would reward counties for serving high-need, justice-involved youth locally. The legislation respects the choice of those counties that continue to rely on DJF, but provides new resources, including technical assistance funding, for those counties electing to serve DJF-eligible youth locally. Counties would receive additional funding for serving high-need justice-involved youth but would also be subject to oversight, which ensures they use best practices, as defined by the legislation.

Brian Heller de Leon

County use of the state system is steadily declining. The December 2012 DJF population was below 800 young people, which is a dramatic drop from the peak use of 10,000 in 1996. This decline includes more serious and violent youth offenders. Counties are decreasing their new admissions to DJF each month, committing 60 percent fewer youth in the second half of 2012 compared to the same period for 2010. This nets significant fiscal benefits for the state, which accrued $75 million in savings over the past two years. Unfortunately, the state used these funds for deficit relief rather than supporting county best practices.

Assembly member Jones-Sawyer’s proposal, California would invest these cost-savings, from reduced DJF commitments, to develop county-level successes with serious youth offenders. This allows state policymakers and local administrators to develop a sustainable partnership that supports local best practices through appropriate funding. The proposal is derived from two landmark state criminal justice policies, Senate Bill 81 and Senate Bill 678.

In 2007, California passed Senate Bill 81, which formally recognized that county juvenile justice programs are “better suited to provide rehabilitative services to certain youthful offenders than state-operated facilities.” SB 81 requires counties to manage all non-violent youth offenders. The state allocates funding through a monitored block grant to expand local programming and resources.

In 2009, California developed a performance-based funding partnership, to improve county supervision for adult offenders on felony supervision. Senate Bill 678, The California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act, incentivizes county probation departments to adopt model practices that lower adult probation revocations. If county probation successfully lowers these revocations, the state splits 50 percent of the total cost savings with them. A state report for 2011 found the policy diverted thousands of offenders from returning to state prison and saved the state roughly $277.8 million. County probation departments shared these savings, which strengthened model practices.

California can develop a juvenile justice policy, which integrates the successful elements of both these bills, to create a strong state-county partnership that fosters local innovation and improves outcomes for high-need youth. As counties assume greater responsibility for said youth, it is imperative they receive the necessary resources to be successful.

This proposal builds on the unique perspective and strength of our communities. It recognizes the future of California’s juvenile justice system lies with our highly diverse 58 counties. Yet it also acknowledges the state’s necessary role in oversight and technical assistance. Only through a truly meaningful state-county partnership, can California’s juvenile justice system improve public safety, empower our communities, and help our youth.

Brian Goldstein is a Post-Graduate Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

Brian Heller de Leon is the Policy and Government Outreach Coordinator for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). He has a background in community organizing, police-community relations, and the implementation of national best-practice strategies for youth and gang violence reduction.

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