State to Detail Reform of CYA

Times Staff Writer

The Schwarzenegger administration is poised to profoundly transform how California treats its most troubled young lawbreakers, replacing a prison culture of punishment and control with one anchored in group therapy, self-discipline and preparation for life outside.

Under the new approach, outlined in court documents to be filed today, inmates in the California Youth Authority -- now idle or locked down much of the time -- would follow an intensive schedule of counseling, education and vocational training designed to consume nearly every waking hour.

Living units, now marked by violence and crowded with up to 75 youths, would house half that number. Every offender would be teamed with a counselor who would follow the youth’s progress -- and, when needed, impose sanctions or rewards -- throughout the sentence.


Officials could not predict how soon the state would transition to the therapeutic approach, though it will not be this year. A more detailed blueprint from the state is due to be filed in November in Alameda County Superior Court, where it must be approved by Judge Ronald Sabrow before any changes are made. Also unclear was how much the changes would cost.

But Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said he hoped that the shift, proposed in response to a lawsuit challenging the CYA’s conditions, would make California’s juvenile penal system a national model. As it stands, three of four parolees are arrested within three years, and officials acknowledge that many inmates fail to receive the education, psychiatric treatment or other medical care they need.

“What we are trying to do has never been done before -- not here in California, or anywhere else for that matter, not at this scale,” Hickman said. He said he envisions “a whole new CYA” that keeps the staff safe while giving young offenders tools to succeed.

Some critics applauded the new direction but said the specifics fall well short of their expectations.

“I’d love to be able to say, ‘Hurrah, go team!’ ” said David Steinhart, a consultant who has fought to overhaul the CYA for two decades and who recently served on a committee advising the administration on juvenile justice reform. “But we need an extreme makeover, and this isn’t it.”

Missing, among other things, is a clear promise to tear down the system’s large, prison-like institutions and replace them with smaller facilities closer to where inmates’ families live, Steinhart said.

Also lacking, he added, is any immediate plan to improve the Youth Authority’s widely maligned parole system, whose overloaded agents can do little more than track -- rather than guide and support -- juveniles during their transition back into society.

Perhaps the most glaring omission, Steinhart said, is any significant financial commitment from Schwarzenegger. The governor’s revised $115.7-billion budget, released Friday, contains just $3.1 million for “reinventing California’s broken juvenile corrections system,” though an additional $6.8 million is earmarked for specific improvements.

Steinhart called the funding pledge a “positive hint of good things to come, but pretty disappointing.”

“I think this administration is acting in good faith and trying to get to a good result,” he added, “but it’s painfully slow.”

Hickman acknowledged that new facilities are key to making the rehabilitative model a success. The $3.1 million, officials said, is a down payment on that vision.

“The facilities in the Youth Authority are mostly old, they are not in the best repair, and they were designed for a different kind of population and a different kind of program,” said G. Kevin Carruth, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

He could not say, however, when new buildings might replace existing ones.

Efforts to reform the California Youth Authority have sputtered for years, the victim of political indifference and disagreement over what constitutes a successful formula for managing wayward youths.

With eight prisons and two camps, the CYA was founded in 1941 after activists protested the housing of young troublemakers alongside hardened criminals in the state’s adult lockups.

For decades, the agency took a paternalistic approach. Inmates -- called wards -- took field trips to movies and the beach. They lived in “cottages” and were supervised by counselors in civilian clothes.

But while a number of its 3,300 wards ages 12 to 25 still live in those open dorms, little else about the CYA of 2005 resembles the agency of old. The growth of gangs has added a violent component to life inside, and the Youth Authority now houses the toughest of the state’s offenders, spending $71,000 a year to house each male and $140,000 on each female.

At the same time, the original focus on rehabilitation has gradually given way to a more punitive -- and sometimes brutal -- culture, according to state-hired experts who spent weeks inside the CYA as part of the lawsuit. Inmates who misbehave are often segregated in bare cells for weeks, locked down for all but a few hours a day. Until recently, some were confined in large metal cages for certain purposes. That practice was halted after an outcry from lawmakers and activists.

The last few years have been particularly turbulent for the CYA, with independent experts criticizing almost every aspect of its operations, including the use of force by staff. One high-profile incident in 2004 involved a videotape -- broadcast nationwide -- that showed two correctional counselors kicking and striking two wards as they lay face-down on the floor. At least one legislator, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), has proposed closing the CYA.

Aides to the governor said the videotaped beating was among the factors persuading Schwarzenegger to settle the lawsuit challenging conditions in the CYA. The suit, first filed as a class action in 2002, was later refiled as a taxpayer action on behalf of Margaret Farrell of Reseda, whose nephew, inmate Edward Jermaine Brown, allegedly was locked in an isolation cell for seven months and fed “blender meals,” a whipped mix of food, through a straw pushed through his door. (After the suit’s filing, the CYA closed the unit where Brown was housed and stopped dispensing blender meals.) In announcing the settlement at a CYA prison in Stockton last fall, Schwarzenegger said he wanted to “put the focus back on rehabilitation” and give the wards, with an average age of 19, “a better chance to succeed in life.”

Officials said the approach to be disclosed today would do just that. In building their model, California corrections officials spent the last year visiting Missouri, Texas, Washington, Colorado and Florida -- states with juvenile programs that are delivering promising results.

Several features characterize successful programs: smaller living units, a therapeutic peer culture and a low staff-to-inmate ratio. Each of those would be present in the California version, officials said.

Incoming wards would be screened to determine their educational, emotional and psychological needs, and then sent to an appropriate facility. There, they would develop a behavioral contract with a case manager, who would set goals, spell out sanctions for misbehavior and help the ward stay on track.

In the living units, senior wards would act as role models and leaders; misbehavior would immediately give rise to a group meeting or, when necessary to ensure safety, a ward’s temporary removal from the group.

Officials said one significant challenge would be training the staff, especially in ways to manage outbursts and keep hostilities from escalating, and getting inmates used to the new approach. In today’s CYA, violence has been described by one expert as “off the charts,” and officers routinely use Mace to subdue warring youths.

“It’s a big culture shift, and it won’t happen overnight,” said Elizabeth Siggins, California’s assistant secretary for juvenile justice policy.

“But it’s been abundantly clear for years that the CYA has been neglected and is not adequately preparing youth to reenter society.

“We hope we have the mandate and the momentum to change that.”