Juvenile Injustice

The settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the California Youth Authority on Tuesday uses all the right words. It calls for noble-sounding reforms to reorient the 3,700-inmate juvenile prison system toward rehabilitating wayward youths instead of just removing them from society. But it is as light on specifics as it is heavy on rhetoric.

Changes are deeply needed at the CYA, where teenagers are sometimes locked in barren isolation cells for 23 hours a day, beaten by correctional “counselors,” deprived of basic healthcare and denied the sort of vocational education that could help them escape the justice system. Nine out of 10 youth offenders released in California end up incarcerated again.

The settlement does an excellent job of pointing out problems like these and urging that they be fixed. That might generate more excitement if not for the long history in California of passionate entreaties to reform the CYA and promises of action, with no follow-up. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson promised reforms similar to those called for in the settlement; nothing happened.

A key reason why the Prison Law Office, the nonprofit public interest group in Marin County that brought the lawsuit two years ago, agreed to settle was the Schwarzenegger administration’s decision to let Donna Brorby serve as a “special master” in charge of monitoring the state’s progress toward implementing the reforms. Now a San Francisco lawyer, Brorby won wide respect as the lead attorney in a lawsuit that brought the Texas prison system under federal oversight for more than 20 years. Brorby, however, won’t be able to accomplish much without clear goals. Though the settlement requires the state to establish a “plan” for the CYA, what California really needs is concrete, public accountability measures.


One year from now, Brorby should be able to report the agency’s progress toward getting CYA counselors to talk with kids about their problems before showering them with pepper spray. She should be able to document what the authority has done to ensure that tax dollars are spent on rehabilitation services to juveniles who can most benefit from them: the 12% to 16% of inmates who, numerous studies show, are all but bound to embark on lives of violent crime without aggressive early intervention.

Finally, one year from now, she should be able to show that county jails, private boot camps and other alternative correctional programs were given a chance to bid on taking over a share of the CYA population.

Scores of such providers say that given the $80,000 a year that California taxpayers spend on each CYA inmate, they could better the system’s 1-in-10 success rate. The least the Schwarzenegger administration can afford them is the chance to try.