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Serious Problems Festering in Juvenile Justice System Require Serious Reforms

When Alan Feaster said goodbye to his 18-year-old son, Durrell, at the Preston training school run by the California Youth Authority, he never thought it would be for the last time. Just weeks later, in January, his son was dead, the victim of an apparent double suicide with his cellmate, acts of desperation that in all likelihood were connected to conditions our state has allowed to fester in its prisons for troubled youth.

Durrell’s death may seem like an isolated incident, but the horrific conditions in the CYA are more the rule than the exception. As California policymakers struggle to reform our system of juvenile justice, they need to focus on systematic reforms, the kind that won’t just paper over problems but would end the system’s abuses once and for all.

Just a few weeks after the two boys’ deaths, a panel of experts reported on the deplorable conditions at CYA facilities. They found excessive rates of violence; inadequate mental health care and educational services; overuse of isolation cells; and deplorable conditions, including feces spread all over some of the cells. Some boys were being forced to sit or stand in cages while attending classes, a “normal” situation in the state’s Kafkaesque system.

Just as shocking as the litany of CYA abuses is the fact that institutions such as Preston Training School simply don’t work. A growing body of research shows that young people incarcerated in large institutions get rearrested more frequently, and for more serious crimes than their counterparts with similar delinquency histories who are not incarcerated.

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For example, a study that compared matched samples of offenders in Arkansas found that the incarceration experience was the single greatest predictor of future criminal conduct, dwarfing the effects of gang membership or family dysfunction.

It’s not surprising then, that more than nine out of 10 CYA “graduates” are back in trouble with the law within three years of their release. On top of that, the CYA system costs taxpayers a whopping $85,000 a year per youth. It seems likely that if the majority of CYA youths came from white, middle-class neighborhoods, the public would never stand for its failures and abuses.

Fortunately, there is a better way to respond to youth crime than by confining young people in dungeon-like prisons. Last week, a network of experts, advocates, concerned parents and young people issued a platform that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Legislature and the governor’s recently created Task Force on the California Youth Authority would do well to adopt.

The platform contains three recommendations that would transform juvenile justice in California.

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First, make sure that only the most serious offenders are incarcerated and that, when youth are confined in CYA institutions, they do not stay for excessively long periods. Right now, CYA youths spend more time locked up for every category of offense than adults do for the same crimes.

The state already assesses juvenile offenders to determine which of them are at the highest risk for recidivism. Those deemed at low risk could be placed in rigorous, community-based and -operated programs instead of being incarcerated. Even those who are incarcerated could spend the final year of their sentences in such programs, in order to get re-acclimated to their communities.

Secondly, policymakers should make sure that the dollars follow young people out of the prisons and back into their communities. That is, as the CYA population declines, a portion of its $385-million budget should be reallocated to fund the programs needed to rehabilitate young people in their home neighborhoods. That $85,000 per offender per year should purchase state-of-the art services. In addition, some of it must be spent on developing programs tailored for girls and “special needs” youth (those who are developmentally or mentally ill), two groups whose needs tend to be neglected now by the CYA.

Finally, the state should begin phasing out all 10 of the CYA’s large, prison-like youth institutions. In their place, it should create small (no larger than 40 beds each), home-like, secure facilities for young offenders who need confinement and close monitoring. These facilities should be run by youth specialists, not prison guards; they should provide individual programming and engage families in the rehabilitation process. Starting in the 1980s, Missouri replaced its large institutions with facilities that contain no more than 40 youths and made rehabilitation -- not punishment -- the system’s No. 1 priority. Seventy percent of those released from these institutions in 1999 stayed out of correctional programs over the next three years. Furthermore, according to Mark Steward, director of the Missouri Department of Juvenile Services, over the last 15 years there has not been a serious injury during a restraint nor has there been a lawsuit or a formal complaint filed by parents.

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The governor and Legislature have acknowledged that there are serious problems in California’s juvenile justice system. The task force is at work on assembling recommendations. The state now needs to act decisively, not just to quell a public relations nightmare but to build the kind of juvenile justice system our young people need and our state deserves.

James Bell is executive director of the San Francisco-based W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness and Equity. Javier Stauring is director of the Office of Restorative Justice / Detention Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.


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