In California, justice for juveniles


Lawmakers created the California Youth Authority in 1941, making in the process a bold statement of purpose and conviction: Juvenile delinquents are redeemable. They should no longer be imprisoned with adults but instead given a chance at basic education and job training. Rehabilitation, not punishment, is the proper goal of an enlightened and effective juvenile justice system.

But by the late 1990s the California Youth Authority had become a network of grim and violent youth prisons that were so abusive and so destructive to their mission that all but a few were shut down. A majority of the 10,000 state wards returned to probation departments in their home counties; just over 1,000 remain in what is now the state prison system’s Division of Juvenile Justice.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to take one final step by eliminating the division and getting the state out of the juvenile justice business altogether. Brown no doubt likes the fact that the move would wipe millions of dollars from the state’s books. Some youth advocates like the notion of forever closing the doors of what had become nightmarish institutions with no pretense of rehabilitation. County officials are divided, but many like the prospect of getting a chunk of the funding that would accompany the remaining state wards as they are returned to local probation camps.

They all have valid points — and they are all wrong. Just as we continue to need state prisons for violent and serious adult felons, California needs a Division of Juvenile Justice — smaller, to be sure, and more enlightened and more effective — to house, supervise and treat a reduced population of violent young offenders. There are only two other alternatives, and neither is acceptable: The state must not send its dangerous and damaged minors to probation departments that are not yet equipped to handle the most difficult cases; nor should it abandon them, along with any chance for their rehabilitation, to the adult penal system.

Let’s be clear: Dismantling the California Youth Authority was the right move. So were the follow-up components of the state-to-county process known as juvenile justice “realignment.” And the changes are working: Juvenile crime numbers continue to fall. The state must do a better job of tracking former probationers into adulthood to see whether they are staying out of trouble, but the anecdotal data are encouraging.

It’s smart and effective, it turns out, to keep young offenders in their home communities, close to local rehabilitative programming and mentors but with probation-officer monitoring to help them resist the lure of bad influences; or, when more direct supervision is needed, in local probation camps within visiting distance of family. More rigorous data tracking from across the nation shows, not surprisingly, that wards who committed lower-level crimes do best when kept apart from more violent offenders. The two populations respond best to different kinds of supervision and living conditions.

But most smaller and mid-size counties don’t even have so-called ranches where more violent offenders are supervised and treated; minors who otherwise would go to the three remaining state facilities would be crammed into juvenile halls, which were designed merely to hold youngsters awaiting hearings. Probation departments are just now turning a very important corner, recognizing the benefits and seeing the good results of a treatment-oriented model for lower and mid-level offenders. The state shouldn’t undermine the departments’ progress by forcing them to also absorb the worst cases — at least not right away.

Besides, the Division of Juvenile Justice, while hardly perfect, is no longer the California Youth Authority of 15 years ago. There are now education and rehabilitative services. There is mental-health care and drug treatment. Monitored by courts and criminal justice advocates, wards are no longer beaten or sexually abused as in the recent past.

Most county probation departments, by contrast, are still flying under the radar. True, Los Angeles County’s department has been subject to federal monitoring for years and is trying to fend off aU.S. Department of Justicelawsuit or consent decree. But for other counties, there is insufficient inspection of facilities or scrutiny of programs — much like the California Youth Authority before the lawsuits that began in the 1990s.

The other, and even worse, alternative is for prosecutors to file against more young offenders as adults, seeking adult sentences and sending them to adult prisons (convicted felons under 18 are housed separately until they become legal adults).

That practice, known as “direct filing,” was made possible by one of those tough-on-crime ballot measures that crowded California prisons, recycled addicted and mentally ill inmates in and out of incarceration and landed the state with a federal court order to reduce the prison population. There would be little point in now emptying juvenile institutions only to refill other prisons or jails with minors serving adult sentences. It wouldn’t save any money, would undermine the ongoing adult prison realignment, and would once again derail the state’s long-preached but too-seldom-practiced mission to salvage young offenders before they are lost forever to a criminal lifestyle.

A wave of reform is sweeping through juvenile justice programs around the state, focusing on treatment, monitoring, follow-up programming and data tracking. California has lost the leadership it held beginning in the 1940s, and is now grappling with the aftereffects of four decades of tough-on-crime initiatives.

It would be far too easy to close the Division of Juvenile Justice and send California’s most troubled and difficult young offenders to counties — and to forget them. The faith-without-follow-up process is what helped undermine the once groundbreaking California Youth Authority. It must not be repeated. Before the state can get completely out of the juvenile justice business, it must ensure that counties will have the training, the facilities, the programming expertise — and the oversight — they will need to do the job.