The Case for Phased Juvenile Justice Realignment in California


California is embarking on an ambitious and deep-rooted reform of its corrections system, an effort that has come to be know as realignment. Gov. Jerry Brown’s main aims in this undertaking is to reduce dramatically high costs, as well as overcrowding and recidivism rates by transferring non-serious adult offenders and parolees from the state to the counties.

But concurrent to this effort, many reform-minded criminal justice advocates also propose a full devolution of the state juvenile system to local counties. Full juvenile realignment is a historic opportunity to end a failed system, while addressing county-level discrepancies in sentencing and services. California’s 58 counties already manage much of the juvenile system, including total responsibility for supervising probation.

Amid growing acceptance, the conversation around juvenile justice realignment in California stands to enter a new phase. In addition to Gov. Brown, Department of Finance, Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), Little Hoover Commission, and various stakeholders are now publicly calling for empowering counties to assume full responsibility for serving their youthful offenders.

Sacramento understands the exorbitant costs for maintaining a dual juvenile justice system, both in fiscal terms and as detrimental to effective rehabilitation.  Per a recent report from the LAO, the state-run Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) spent $179,000 per youth for 2011-2012. Yet this spending does not temper the widespread culture of violence in the facilities, nor does it treat and educate our youth.  As such, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recently found an 80% re-arrest rate within three years of a youth’s release.  DJF facilities remain in a condition of continued disrepair.  Nevertheless, California is legally bound to spend enormous sums for their replacement and upkeep, as a result of an ongoing lawsuit.

However, questions persist about the feasibility of juvenile justice realignment. Many concede the failure of DJF, but raise the issue of county capacity. These skeptics believe counties lack the necessary infrastructure and expertise to get the job done. Some prosecutors argue that juvenile justice realignment, given these deficiencies, will force their hand to charge youths in adult criminal court, rather than offload them to ill-prepared counties.  Yet, this fails to recognize ongoing county expertise and successes with high-risk youth.

Many within California’s criminal justice community, including the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), propose phased realignment as a sensible way to initiate reform and ensure long-term public safety.  This staggered approach recognizes the concerns of certain stakeholders and offers a path for implementation on terms agreeable to all counties.

A central feature of phased realignment is oversight through a well-designed state body. State oversight allows for greater uniformity in expectations and policy implementation.  Funds currently slated for use by DJF would go instead to counties, proportional to their specific juvenile felony-arrest rates. This funding scheme directly helps those counties with the most high-risk youth, rather than incentivizing county over-reliance on DJF facilities.  The plan benefits from previous county experience and successes. In 2007, Senate Bill 81 initiated county juvenile realignment for 99 percent of offenders, with this exact funding scheme.  A wide consensus of opinion, which includes many in the law enforcement community, believes Senate Bill 81 a proven success.

This ongoing investment grows local capacity, while fostering innovation in more challenged jurisdictions. Rehabilitation tied to community-based services and family support requires particular attention. State monitoring ensures that funds directly benefit special needs youth, specifically those with mental health and substance abuse issues. A state partnership can also foster county-level best practices and information sharing through targeted financing of alternatives to confinement. Finally, the state could support data collection to help avoid existing county sentencing disparities, which create a system of “justice by geography.”  This model for state oversight is not new, but reflects the original intent of the 1941 California Youth Authority Act.  The legislation envisioned the state as a facilitator and overseer of county juvenile justice practices, not as a provider of direct services to youth.

Law-enforcement associations who oppose phased juvenile realignment, likewise resist implementation of  “budget triggers” that require counties to pay for each of their youths in state facilities. Such discussion occurs amid a backdrop of deep financial strain for the state. A failure to reform perpetuates this system of disproportionate sacrifice. Why should juvenile justice enjoy exemption from “budget triggers,” while the state cuts funding to schools, universities, mental health professionals, and child-care providers? If the state fails to enforce financial obligations for youth corrections, then more cuts on education and social services will be necessary to plug these gaps.

Phased juvenile realignment begins much-needed reform immediately, while investing in the long-term success of California’s counties. The current system is not sustainable, failing both our youth and the provision of public safety.  In contrast, a staggered transitional plan empowers counties to direct juvenile justice reform on their terms. This program balances the growing momentum for juvenile justice realignment, with a single-minded focus on assuaging county concerns. As such, the promise of well-designed reform for California’s juvenile justice system is within reach.