The De-Incarceration of California’s Juvenile Justice System

Selena Teji
December 1, 2011

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.


This article was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. It is reprinted here with permission.


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