Getting the state out of juvenile justice

With California in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in 80 years, most of us expect elected officials to be scouring the state budget for ways to cut all unnecessary spending. Few areas of state government are more suitable for elimination than the five state-run youth correctional facilities that comprise the old California Youth Authority, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Yet despite recent reports by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Little Hoover Commission and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice calling for the system’s closure and the reallocation of its $322.7 million budget to other spending priorities, the state Legislature has taken no action.

Maintaining the five facilities is a waste of precious resources. Because the system is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Prison Law Office over the horrific conditions within the state’s youth correctional facilities and the consent decree that resulted from it, the state spends an average of $228,715 a year for each of the 1,400 youths in its custody. Acknowledging the system’s failures, the Schwarzenegger administration agreed to try to restructure it by changing the management organization, reducing the institutional population and infusing it with more resources for rehabilitation.


In spite of this enormous expense, there is little evidence that youths are being well served. Those committed to these state-run facilities enter a world in which gang membership is considered necessary for survival. Those who are not gang-affiliated when they enter the system become gang members soon after arrival to avoid isolation and exploitation.

The deplorable conditions led one team of neutral court-appointed correctional experts to conclude in March 2006 that the system “is broken almost everywhere you look.”

The reality of pervasive violence and scant rehabilitation was fully acknowledged by the Schwarzenegger administration when it agreed to fix the problems and entered into the consent decree in November 2004.

Along with their limited public safety value, four of the five state-run institutions are more than 40 years old and in a state of near collapse. State officials and independent experts estimate that California will need to spend nearly $265 million for capital improvements and necessary repairs to “obsolete and decrepit facilities.” The state has allocated only $15 million for these purposes, and that figure does not include the building of any new facilities. Since the state has agreed that replacing the facilities is necessary to comply with the current lawsuit, Californians will have to invest more than $1 billion more for new construction.

Retaining the state-run youth corrections system is no longer necessary because the requisite institutional facilities now exist at the county level. Over the last 12 years the state and federal governments invested millions of dollars to expand and modernize county juvenile justice facilities across the state. According to the reports from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, California counties now have 2,000 to 3,000 surplus high- and medium-security institutional beds that could more than absorb the majority of the youths remaining in state facilities at less than half the cost.

There are several benefits to closing the state youth institutions. It would eliminate the state’s financial obligations under the lawsuit, since there would no longer be a system for the state to maintain.

Taking just half of the Division of Juvenile Justice budget would provide unprecedented additional resources to county probation systems, which already handle 99% of California’s juvenile justice cases. The additional resources would allay county concerns about handling the youths now confined in state facilities, most of whom would become the counties’ responsibility.

The change would end the disparity that exists between counties in their reliance on state correctional institutions. The decision to send youths to state facilities is often more a function of county politics and practices than the crime committed. Many counties have high-performing juvenile justice systems that send few youths to the state, but other counties do not. Taking away the option of committing youths to state institutions would spur innovation and better practices statewide.

Finally, the approximately 1,500 staffers in the youth correctional facilities can easily be absorbed into the adult corrections system, relieving the chronic understaffing in prisons and actually saving money by reducing overtime costs.

The state can no longer afford to prop up a failed system that will continue to drain the California treasury to the detriment of other spending priorities, especially when a viable alternative exists.

Daniel Macallair is executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and serves on the faculty of the Department of Criminal Justice Studies at San Francisco State University. He served on the Little Hoover Commission state advisory panel on reforming California’s youth corrections system.