“Crossover Youth”: The Intersection of Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice

Crossover youth is more than the latest buzzword in the often jargon-filled lexicon of juvenile justice. Instead, the term reflects a growing understanding of the dynamic between child abuse, neglect and delinquency. This population of young people has contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Addressing child welfare is challenging enough, let alone when joined with deeper problems of delinquency. Abused young people often carry scars of trauma and pain, which can inform delinquent behavior that leads to subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. However, the complex challenges and needs of crossover youth often prove too much for each system alone to address. Practitioners must find a reasonable solution that ameliorates these issues or crossover youth may re-enter the child welfare system or go on to commit more serious offenses. Instead, an integrated approach, which builds on each system’s unique strength, is the ideal approach.

Who are these young people?

The exact number is unknown, given the absence of rigorous data collection, although estimates range from 9 percent to 29 percent of those in the child welfare system. A recent webinar, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), detailed how a majority of these young people suffer from wide-ranging challenges, which include education difficulties, mental health issues and sexual abuse.

Another major contributing factor is that many suffer from placement instability. A recent study of dually involved youth in LA County found that 55 percent had been relocated between group homes and foster care placements three or more times during their lifetimes.

Why do crossover youth matter?

The crossover population represents a unique challenge for both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A 2001 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the likelihood of detention for foster youth awaiting trial for misdemeanors or minor felonies was 10 percent higher than non-foster care youth. Moreover, they frequently suffer amid a compartmentalization of system care and oversight. For example, juveniles who make contact with the justice system may lose access to welfare services and their respective case manager, resulting in a disruption to their therapeutic services.

The long-term consequences for crossover youth are significant with many suffering higher incidence of drug use and exacerbated mental illness. The aforementioned study of LA County also found that crossover youth have a higher recidivism rate than non-crossover youth, and more than 30 percent have new maltreatment referrals following their arrest. These young people may not only commit offenses as adults, but may well perpetuate the cycle of maltreatment as parents.

What can be done?

Fortunately, juvenile justice professionals are increasingly recognizing the unique situation of crossover youth and are developing system tools sensitive to the specifics of their problem. Law enforcement officials, judges, and child welfare practitioners are beginning to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of this unique population early enough to offset the substantial human and fiscal cost. In addition, reform-minded foundations and non-profits have initiated pilot technical assistance programs across the country, in the hopes of creating replicable best practices. The recent OJDDP webinar featured speakers advocating for multi-disciplinary teams to bridge the system-wide gap, an approach shared by others.

For example, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, at Georgetown University, developed The Crossover Youth Practice Model, which is currently used at 11 jurisdictions across the country. A central feature of the model is to encourage multi-agency collaboration across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such coordinated case management and supervision fosters family engagement and youth permanency. This directly addresses the instability that leads many young people from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In California, the Sierra Health Foundation, through their Positive Youth Justice Initiative, has also taken a lead in fostering county-level innovation to address this issue.

In the complicated world of juvenile justice, there is not always a clear distinction between young people in the child welfare system and those in the juvenile justice system. Abused and neglected young people come into contact with the justice system due to any number of contributing factors.  For each system to work best, they must first understand whom crossover youth are and develop necessary treatment and support models. This requires child welfare and juvenile justice departments to collaborate on best practices, streamlined case management and more effective data collection.

Such partnerships bring a sense of stability and continuity of care that crossover youth so often lack. Moreover, this represents a promising development in juvenile justice, where youth are recognized for their potential to succeed beyond a history of neglect and abuse.

Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)'s policy team and a Masters graduate in political science from San Francisco State University.  His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

California Juvenile Arrests at 50-year Low

New numbers released by the Criminal Justice Statistics Center indicate that last year, California posted its lowest number of juvenile arrests in more than half a century.

The 2011 total of 149,563 juvenile arrests is the lowest annual tally since 1957; the first year statewide records were kept.

Even when accounting for a larger youth population in the state, recent figures indicate California teens are less likely to be arrested for severe crimes, such as murder and rape, than young people 50 years ago. Since the 1970s, youth crime has been on a downward spiral in the Golden State, with the number of violent offenses perpetrated by juveniles plummeting by 50 percent over the last four decades.

With reports from all 58 counties analyzed, researchers noted a 17 percent decrease in California juvenile arrests from 2010 to 2011, with violent and property offenses dropping by 16 percent, and status and misdemeanor offenses dropping by 21 percent. Overall, juvenile murder arrests plunged by 26 percent over the one-year window.

Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) senior research fellow Mike Males said that it’s difficult to pinpoint one factor that explains such a dramatic statistical decrease.

“We looked at law changes,” he said, “if anything, with one exception, laws expanded to include more people than they would in the past.”

The exception that Males notes is a recent change in the state’s marijuana laws, in which misdemeanor possession was reduced to an infraction as opposed to an offense that results in arrest. That policy change, he said, may account for as much as a quarter of the decrease in juvenile arrests over the last year.

In assessing contributing social factors to the decline, Males said the most apparent influence has been the decrease in the total number of youths living in concentrated areas of poverty within the state.

“The problem is, this juvenile crime drop has not been talked about,” he said. “We have to start changing the whole way we think about criminal offending by age, and especially get away from these emotional depictions of juvenile crime based on single, horrific incidents.”

With the newfound statistics in mind, Males said it’s time for social stakeholders to reassess the issue of juvenile justice. “I think we have to stop talking about youth as a crime-prone population,” he concluded.

Why Juvenile Justice Systems Need Local Data

Local application of juvenile justice policies vary widely and understanding these trends is of fundamental importance to policymaking. Governors, legislators, stakeholders, and public watchdogs all use data to inform their understanding of the impact of a proposed law, as well as the effectiveness of the currently implemented system. The results of juvenile justice policy are far-reaching; therefore, it is critical that accurate and relevant data inform policy decisions.

In California, 58 autonomous counties administer juvenile justice serving 99 percent of the state’s justice involved youth. The state’s role currently involves operating three dilapidated and isolated youth correctional facilities that house about 930 of California’s more high-need offenders. The state’s decentralized approach to governance has fostered local innovation within California, but it also created a need for increased local data-driven analyses.

County-level data reveals stark contrasts regarding historic county practices. Analyses showed many counties are strongly self-reliant, serving even their most serious youth offenders locally. On the other hand, several counties are heavily state-dependent, creating a disparate impact on youth statewide.  Through these data analyses, policymakers are able to ask, “if there have been successes in some counties, why not elsewhere?”

However, while county level data is useful, it must be accurate and relevant. Some counties have few resources to devote to data collection and duty officers are often required to input information into archaic systems without proper training or direction. As a result, counties will often only collect the minimum metrics mandated by statewide agencies. These statewide agencies are equally resource constrained and collect only what is required by statute, with minimal instruction or verification of data they are given. Thus, California’s juvenile justice data are held fragmented by several different statewide agencies, with minimal communication between them.

Variations and errors in data collection at the local level obfuscate important issues of policy impact. This has become even more apparent in California, following a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) investigation that found extensive errors in the direct filing dataset dating back to 2003. Prosecutors were granted the ability to direct file a youth in adult criminal court for commission of serious crimes in 2000. The issue of direct filing has continually been an issue in California and nationwide.

Policymakers and advocacy groups have been using the aggregate data on direct filing to inform policy decisions for years. For example, the Attorney General uses direct filing data to monitor the administration of juvenile justice in California. Several research institutions have relied on these data to conduct policy research. Prosecutors used these data as a basis for opposing closure of California’s youth correctional facilities. Yet, CJCJ’s analysis of historic county-level data revealed large discrepancies throughout the official dataset, resulting from erroneous reporting and insufficient metric definitions. These inaccuracies lead to misdirected policy research and a lack of clarity around policy decisions.

To pursue an efficient and humane juvenile justice system, policymakers must have insight into the current, historic, and proposed application of justice policies. This insight must extend beyond anecdotal observation and target the point of impact; that is, policy must be informed by visibility into daily operations of local jurisdictions. Statewide aggregate data analysis can only present a portion of the California juvenile justice story.

In a decentralized system, local practices are essential to understanding state policy. State agencies are the appropriate conduit for this information, being able to provide oversight and guidance to local jurisdictions while also consolidating the data to form a cohesive picture of statewide practices.

Trimming the Juvenile Justice Fat

California Gov. Jerry Brown was recently quoted telling the state Legislature to “man up” on his proposed budget cuts and yet, when it comes to juvenile justice, it seems the governor consistently bends under pressure.

Unfortunately, the effects of his juvenile justice compromise will soon be felt by all California residents, according to a new CJCJ publication. With scarce and finite resources, the governor’s decision to grant a reprieve for state youth correctional facilities, in his May revised budget, creates an additional strain on already scantily-funded state services.

This is the second year the governor has removed a proposal for full juvenile justice realignment from his budget. In FY 2011-12, the budget allocated counties $200,000 per state-confined youth, to increase their capacity for serving high-need juvenile offenders. After lobbying opposition from law enforcement interest groups, this proposal was pulled from the budget, while severe cuts were made to the state university systems, department of developmental services, in-house support services and other state-run programs.

Then in January 2012, the governor pulled his mid-year budget trigger cuts due to an increasing revenue shortfall. These triggers cut expansive areas of social and public service sectors, including care-giving to the blind, disabled, elderly and autistic populations, amounting to $611,131,000 reduction in funding to serve California’s most vulnerable populations. An additional $302 million was deducted from the state’s investment in higher education. Yet, the governor granted a reprieve for the state youth correctional facilities trigger, which would have required counties to pay 60 percent of the cost of housing youths there (currently they pay only a nominal fee); losing a projected saving of $67.7 million.

Now the governor is proposing some small scale changes to the state youth correctional budget which are projected to save the state $24.8 million, while simultaneously announcing $4.1 billion worth of additional cuts to the same service sectors that suffered through the triggers early this year.

Ironically, these same services fundamentally reinforce public safety: education, adequate medical care, mental health treatment and supportive living programs are recognized components for reducing crime and recidivism in the community. In comparison, the isolated institutional design of the state youth correctional system is a recognized failure nationwide.

One has to wonder what drives the governor’s priorities. California recognizes that it is in an extreme fiscal bind, and that everyone needs to cut the fat. Everyone that is, except juvenile justice. The state continues to operate an unnecessary dual system to serve very few youth from about half of California’s counties. Even if you believe that the state system works well (refuted by the most recently available data); in an environment of finite resources that is simply not enough. The question is: is it necessary? Or more accurately, is it more necessary than, for example, literacy classes for adults, K-12 education for children, higher education for the economically deprived, and legal protection for the elderly and disabled? Choosing to maintain the state youth correctional system means choosing to cut elsewhere.

Law enforcement interest groups continue to encourage the governor to “cut from other places.” However, if California wants to protect our communities it needs to teach those youth offenders how to live among us safely. Even with the best intentions, teaching a youth to survive in an institutional and artificial environment does not provide them with the necessary skills to live in their communities. The most essential component of rehabilitation is in re-entry: what happens when a youth goes home. That happens locally, through the programs that are suffering extreme hardship now under the governor’s new budget regime.

I recognize that making state budget cuts is challenging; all sectors of government, communities and individual households are financially strained. In a climate of resource scarcity where social and educational services are already cut to the bone, and keeping one program means cutting elsewhere; how does one decide what to keep and what to eliminate? Now more than ever Californians are looking to the governor to make sensible decisions about what is necessary to protect the lives of Californians.

My money is on the community-based provision of treatment and education. Or at least, it should be.

California Activists Calling for Changes to State’s Juvenile Justice System

Last month, California’s Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) released a policy brief recommending phased juvenile justice realignment beginning later this year.

The release, entitled “Juvenile Justice Realignment in 2012,” was penned by Brian Heller de Leon, the organization’s Policy and Government Outreach Coordinator, and Selena Teji, J.D., the organization’s Communications Specialist and an occasional op-ed contributor to the JJIE.

The CJCJ advocates a three-year program that would effectively abolish the state’s Division of Juvenile Facilities by 2015, reallocating funding to individual counties based on juvenile felony arrest rates.

According to California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities, the state’s counties are saddled with an approximate annual cost of $125,000 per incarcerated youth, with state youth facility budgets topping out at $226 million annually.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data from 2010 found that approximately 80 percent of juveniles within the state’s Division of Juvenile Facilities populations were likely to be re-arrested within three years of release. The state’s taxpayers are estimated to have spent $193,111 per youth to confine California’s state youth facility population, according to 2011 Department of Finance figures.

“The current budget crisis requires action, since California can no longer afford to operate dual state and county juvenile justice systems,” said CJCJ Executive Director Daniel Macallair.

“The choices are clear,” he continued. “Does the state continue to operate a broken, fragmented, isolated and expensive state youth correctional system that stands as a 19th century relic or does it move forthrightly into the 21st century by shifting resources to counties to allow the development of a full array of locally-based juvenile justice services?”

Bringing Down Youth Prisons and Building a Better Place

John Last 1I saw the movie Weeds in 1989. It was a “prison movie,” and I wasn’t particularly interested, but my friend Russell insisted that I watch it.

Honestly, I do not recall much of the plot, but one scene has remained in my memory ever since. Nick Nolte’s character, who starts an acting troop while serving a life sentence, speaks about visiting the ruins of an old prison.

“I saw a prison near Plymouth Rock, and it was overgrown with weeds … they sprang from every crack. Someday their roots will pry the walls apart. I won’t be around, but I saw them last summer, and they were in bloom,” he says.

This vision of the crumbling prison has been with me ever since. I have been fortunate enough to see several prisons close, and to see the beginnings of their destruction in the uncut weeds and crumbling bricks. It gives me a feeling of peace to imagine this happening to places where so much suffering has taken place.

This vision came to be again recently when I read about the governor of California, Jerry Brown, and his push to close the state run juvenile prisons by 2014. I like to imagine all of those places slowly disintegrating, being put to other uses that will better serve the people of that state. The California Division of Juvenile Justice has been in decline for some years. Its 1996 population was around 10,000. Now it is about 1,100. From a high point of eleven prisons, it is now three.

According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, serious youth crime is at its lowest point since they began gathering statistics in 1954. This latest blow is delivered courtesy of the continuing financial crisis that afflicts the state government. The high costs associated with the system were not enough to bring about good results. It is estimated that the annual cost of housing a juvenile offender in California is around $200,000. Even with this high price tag the system was notoriously abysmal. As reported in San Jose Mercury News the conditions in the youth prisons, with 23-hour lockdown, wire cages, and “brutal staff beatings” are well documented.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle there has been opposition from youth advocates, district attorneys, judges and probation chiefs. The main concerns have centered on what is going to happen when these facilities shut down. The governor’s proposal is to allocate $10 million to counties to develop plans to house youth locally. Some worry that treatment will be inconsistent, or that adult lock ups may be used more frequently. All of these issues need to be addressed, and the potential for problems will continue to exist. Most of the kids still locked up in these facilities are older, more violent, and often sex offenders. Many await transfer to adult facilities when they reach adulthood. Some are gang members, and most have suffered significant trauma in their short lives. Others suffer from mental illness.

This should not dissuade citizens and local governments though. By focusing on treating these kids in the way that they deserve, first as human beings, next as adolescents, good results are possible. Creating programs that meet security needs while also decreasing the prison atmosphere is one way to approach the problem. Barry Krisberg, the writer of the Chronicle piece, notes the success of Missouri’s juvenile facilities. There, officials have removed all semblance of prison, and have had a corresponding reduction in prison-like violence. Other successful models exist around the country.

With this opportunity at hand, real changes can be made in the current paradigm of treating children as miniature adults. The potential is huge, and the impact of this decision and what follows it will affect the entire country. Let’s hope that while these prisons slowly crumble to dust a new way will be growing, a way that keeps everyone safe and still treats kids as kids.

Fight Ahead Over Bold California Move to Close State-Run Youth Prisons

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity

California, often a trendsetter, could make history if it approves Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to close all state-run youth prisons and eliminate its state Division of Juvenile Justice.

Much depends, though, on whether the state’s politically influential prison guards, probation officers and district attorneys can be convinced — or forced by legislators — to agree to Brown’s proposal. That won’t be an easy sell, due to both public-safety arguments and sure-to-surface haggling over just who pays to house juvenile offenders.

Vowing to restructure government more efficiently, Brown, a Democrat, wants to close the last three of 11 youth prisons that have long been attacked by critics as “expensive failures.” If the state phases out the last three of its aging detention centers, all future young offenders would be held, schooled and treated by California’s 58 counties.

This is the second time since taking office last year that Brown has proposed closing the state juvenile division, which is part of its corrections system. The division’s responsibility has already been slashed dramatically from 10,000 wards in the mid-1990s to about 1,100 in state custody today. Their numbers may be few, but the cost for keeping those youth in state custody runs about $200,000-a-year for every ward.

A host of agendas

The drop in numbers of youths in state custody is due in part to a decline in juvenile crime in California, but also to state legislation in 2007 that blocked counties from sending nonviolent youth offenders to state-run detention centers.

It was a move driven, some argue, largely by California’s massive budget deficits and the desire to lower ballooning incarceration costs. But the decision also dovetailed with an emerging national philosophy favoring locally-based rehabilitation programs over state-run facilities that have been plagued with records of neglect, danger and sexual abuse.

Behind the policy debate: never-ending negotiations over money. The 2007 initiative included millions in state money to counties to devise and provide more effective treatment closer to wards’ home areas and families. Last year, after wrangling with Brown, legislators approved a deal requiring counties to begin paying $125,000 for each ward they sent to the state, if the state’s revenues didn’t improve.

Sure enough, revenues didn’t improve, and now the counties are balking at having to pay the $125,000 per ward they owe. And Brown isn’t collecting. Instead he has resurrected his idea to shut down the state facilities, and give counties even less than he offered before.

Many, but not all, juvenile justice reformers nationwide are cheering Brown’s announcement this month.

“The same phenomenon is happening on the two coasts,” said Bart Lubow, director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He noted that New York State, too, is shifting care for juveniles more to local custody for cost-control and quality reasons.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal this year includes a deal for New York City to keep most of its offenders locally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained in 2010 that it cost New York City $62 million in 2009 to satisfy a requirement that it pay half the state’s costs for jailing, on daily average, fewer than 600 youth offenders from the city.

The state-run jails were far from New York City wards’ families, the mayor argued, and had dubious records, like California’s, with recidivism rates of about 80 percent.

Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation said that if Brown is able to pull off the feat of closing all state facilities, other states will have a model to follow. “California is at the leading edge of a national trend,” he said, “to abandon centralized facilities that are scandal-prone and ineffective.”

What’s best for juvenile offenders?

As it was last year, Brown’s idea is embedded in his proposed 2012-13 state budget announced this month. It will be hashed over publicly and privately before legislators make a decision by a June 15 deadline.

Most legislators in California are Democrats, as Brown is, but they are always under pressure not to appear soft on crime. They are also mindful that California’s correctional workers’ union is a big player in state politics and a heavy donor to campaigns.

This time, given that only three state juvenile facilities remain, legislators are perhaps under more pressure not to overburden counties, which are already coping with fallout from last year’s budget deal.

That deal was considered historic because after years of waffling, legislators authorized a significant shift of certain low-level adult felons to county responsibility. The aim was to cut state costs and satisfy federal court orders to clear California’s overcrowded prisons.

Mark Varela, legislative chairman for the Chief Probation Officers of California, said his group continues to oppose closing the last three state juvenile detention centers, although, individually, there are some probation chiefs in California who favor it and say they are ready.

Varela said opponents’ “concern is that the youth in DJJ [the Division of Juvenile Justice] represent offenders with a high degree of sophistication,“ who could have a “negative impact” on lower-level offenders who might not easily be separated from them in local facilities.

By mixing the populations, Varela said, the more violent youths, some of them incarcerated for murder or sex offenses, could endanger or influence others and undermine their progress.

Hardball in Sacramento

District attorneys, too, are expected to fight Brown’s proposal; indeed, the California District Attorneys Association has already shown it can play hardball on the issue.

In hearings and official letters last year, the association argued that if California youth prisons were no longer on option, it was “inevitable” that for public safety, prosecutors would likely try many more juveniles as adults and send them to adult state prison. District attorneys also argued that if counties had to pay the state $125,000 per ward, more youths would also likely be prosecuted as adults.

Books Not Bars, a prison rights group that backs Brown’s proposal, is preparing to counter the prosecutors’ threat.

The group has crafted a draft bill designed to force counties to pay for minors they send to state prison, Jennifer Kim, a Books Not Bars leader, told the Center for Public Integrity. “We are currently shopping it around the Legislature,” Kim said.

Kim said the bill calls for counties to pay the state the going adult rate — about $52,500 a year — for each minor put in adult prison based on the discretion of a prosecutor.

That’s not as much as the $200,000 a year it costs the state for each ward in existing youth prisons, Kim said. But she said it could help dissuade counties from trying to avoid keeping young offenders by putting them in adult prison.

Kim said that while legislators might be vulnerable to soft-on-crime accusations, they also are under fire after years of chopping education severely, closing parks and stripping down other services. They need to justify, Kim said, spending millions on a system that fails to reform most of its wards, and has a record of documented abuses.

“California could be its own country,” Kim said. “It’s so big. And we can’t figure out how to handle about 1,000 kids? That’s smaller than the high school I went to.”

Like the district attorneys association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is also opposed to Brown’s idea.

“We’re very disappointed with the proposal. We feel it is an immense disservice to youth offenders,” JeVaughn Baker, spokesman for the correctional workers’ union, told the Center for Public Integrity.

Baker said that instead of a complete closure, the union favors trying to reduce costs per ward, and continuing improvements at the state-run juvenile prisons, which have been operating for a number of years under court decree to improve conditions.

However, Baker said, the union also is willing to talk about a compromise and “wants to be part of the solution.” A meeting is planned in mid-February among union representatives to discuss more steps toward continuing reforms to the state facilities, he said.

The correctional workers’ union contributed heavily to Brown’s election, and continues to have a seat at the table when it comes to prison reforms. But with California reeling from waves of budget cuts, it doesn’t have the clout it used to at the state Capitol and has had to accept changes that cut jobs, said Barry Krisberg, an expert on incarceration policy at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Krisberg, who is also an appointed monitor reporting on improvements at state-run youth facilities, predicted a tough sell for Brown’s proposal at the Capitol. “I’m hearing there is not much enthusiasm in the Legislature for this,” he said.

Krisberg also has his own doubts that the state government should completely phase out its ability to take custody of minors.

He fears that some counties aren’t bluffing when they argue that they are not suited to handle high-level young offenders.

Krisberg said a total closure “would be the most radical juvenile justice reform in history.” He’d rather see the division shifted to the state’s Department of Education, possibly, and out of the prison system.

He also noted that county systems for youth offenders are not scandal-free. The Los Angeles County Probation Department is under federal order to rein in use of force, including pepper spray, as well as neglect of wards with mental health problems and suicidal tendencies.

In December, a federal report found that the Los Angeles probation department still fell short of improvements it was ordered to make.

Krisberg said that in the end, he’d prefer to see California keep a few hundred beds for juveniles at the state level and enact strong policies and provide adequate funding for monitoring and improving local treatment.

Because many high-level wards are adults by the time they’ve served their sentences, what they critically need, Krisberg said, is help from the state with post-incarceration re-entry to society, including housing, access to mental-health medication and job placement.

Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group in San Francisco, is a friend of Krisberg, but differs with him on this issue, arguing for a shutdown of state facilities that he says are relics of a failed rehabilitation model.

Besides, Macallair said, the majority of the state’s wards come from only about a dozen counties, out of 58, that have grown reliant on the state, and need to be pushed to develop a better infrastructure locally for rehabilitation. His group’s research, Macallair said, shows that despite claims to the contrary, California’s counties have enough room and the ability to appropriately separate juveniles.

Meanwhile, he said, “you’ve got a state system that’s really hanging by a thumbnail.”


The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization focused on investigative journalism. 


Photo: Office of Gov. Jerry Brown

California’s Governor Sends Wake-Up Call to the State’s Counties

In his first move of 2012, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for FY 2012-2013 appears to be part compromise, part wake-up call to the state’s counties, indicating he is serious about closing the state’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) once and for all.

Ideally, this proposal should provide some relief for counties because now there is the opportunity for funding of local juvenile justice programs. The proposed budget will postpone the “budget triggers” and allocate an initial $10 million to counties to plan for juvenile justice realignment, followed by approximately $100 million each year. The catch? No new commitments will be made to DJF as of Jan. 1, 2013 and counties will have no choice but to handle their high- needs and high- risk population locally.

In the last week of 2011, Gov. Brown proposed a measure to deter counties from sending youth to DJF. These “budget triggers” agitated many counties, more specifically those sending disproportionately high numbers of youth to DJF, rather than serving them locally. These counties and related special interest groups were obviously frustrated with Brown’s measure because they were forced to either pay $125,000 annually to keep a youth in DJF or handle them locally without funding.

Handling youthful offenders at the local level is what juvenile justice reformers nationwide have been advocating for years. Extensive research has documented that large institutional settings, when compared to rehabilitative alternatives with family-like settings, are far less effective in changing youth behavior or reducing recidivism. In California, the numbers speak for themselves. On average, more than three quarters of youth recidivate from DJF versus county-based rehabilitative options where recidivism rates are less than 40 percent.

At a time of such fiscal crisis, California can no longer afford to be shortsighted in its juvenile justice policies and practices. It is incredibly expensive to send youth to California’s large out-dated state facilities. California taxpayers, rather than the admitting counties, have been fronting the tab of nearly $200,000 per youth per year. This is not the first time Gov. Brown has made clear his commitment to shut down DJF, but last year juvenile justice realignment got shelved after strong opposition from counties even though reallocation of funding was attached.

In this year’s proposed budget, Gov. Brown declares, the “Administration is committed to working with local governments and stakeholders to ensure a successful transition, and to develop a funding model that provides an appropriate level of resources to house and treat juvenile offenders locally.” It is now up to the counties and other juvenile justice stakeholders to push the Legislature to adopt Brown’s proposal, while funding is again attached.

If the budget is passed, the question becomes how will and how should the funding be allocated?  Because the governor’s proposal is so new, there are currently no specifics as to how the $10 million transitional funding or additionally yearly funding will be distributed or monitored.

Policy bureaus and community organizations invested in juvenile justice issues including the Little Hoover Commission, Legislative Analyst’s Office, Ella Baker Center and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, have been providing solutions to this question since 2008 by advocating for counties to take over responsibility for their youthful offender population.

In order to ensure a more fair distribution and not penalize counties that are already serving their youth locally, juvenile justice realignment funding should be allocated to counties based on juvenile felony arrests rates, not strictly the number of youths they currently send to state facilities. This will support counties with the largest number of high-risk serious youth offenders, rather than disproportionately favoring counties that send high numbers of youth to state facilities.

Additionally, the funds must be monitored to ensure it is designated to the establishment of new comprehensive community-based alternatives emphasizing rehabilitation including renovating juvenile halls and promoting alternatives to incarceration. The models should reflect best-practices stressing mental health therapy, education programs, substance abuse treatment, and/or family involvement and transitional planning.

A well-designed juvenile justice realignment plan, with a multi-year realignment process and sufficient and sustainable funding for counties, is an effective approach to promoting long-term public safety. To prepare, counties need to do an inventory of current programs and services in the community so judges and district attorneys are aware of options for all types of youthful offenders. The opportunity to serve California’s youth in their communities is now in the hands of the Legislature to stand by Gov. Brown’s proposal and move California’s juvenile justice system into the 21st century.


The Closing of the Massachusetts Reform Schools and the Legacy of Jerome Miller

On January 15, 1972, a caravan of 100 cars drove onto the grounds of the Lyman Reform School in Westborough, Mass. and stopped at the school’s administration building. Jerome Miller, the director of the state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), emerged from the lead car and walked into the administration building to announce that the few remaining youths were being removed and that the 125-year-old institution was to close.

Over the next year a similar exercise was carried out at the state’s other three reform schools. By the time it was over, Miller had carried out the most remarkable reforms in the history of the juvenile justice system by abolishing the state’s 19th century era reform schools.

The closing of the Massachusetts reform schools stands as the premier event in the history of American juvenile justice reform for a number of reasons. Although long discredited as places of reformation, few could envision a juvenile justice system without the big congregate institutions , since they were long viewed as essential in protecting society from wayward and delinquent youth. Despite decades of documented brutality and mismanagement, most juvenile justice professionals saw the prison-like facilities as serving a necessary function that could not be filled by any other entity.

By his actions, Miller shattered that myth and rendered the reform school obsolete.

Miller was appointed to direct DYS in 1969, during one of the most turbulent periods in the state’s juvenile justice history. Following a series of well publicized reports and public outcry over staff abuse and harsh institutional conditions, the state fired the long-time director and conducted a nationwide search for a replacement.

Miller was a tenured professor of social work at Ohio State University and had never held a position as a director of a youth correctional system. His candor during interviews for the job was apparently impressive and he was selected by Republican Governor Francis Sargent to head the troubled agency that consisted of five reform schools and one mental health facility.

Initially, Miller’s approach to reform followed a conventional path. He issued new policies to improve professional practice within the institutions, organized planning units to infuse a therapeutic ethos, and hired outside consultants to retrain institutional staff.

Yet, during his random and frequent visits to the institutions, Miller became increasingly frustrated with the lack of apparent progress in changing a culture that he viewed as antithetical to accepted notions of curative treatment or humane care. In spite of his best efforts, youth were still subject to an institutional culture of mistreatment, where punishments were arbitrarily imposed by line staff with little guidance or interference from indifferent administrators. Rather than embrace reform, staff initiated a campaign of organized resistance and sabotage, including the posting of escape maps on living unit bulletin boards to encourage youth to run away and undermine Miller’s management.

Recognizing that his conventional strategy of institutional reform was doomed due to the entrenched nature of institutional culture, Miller assembled a small coterie of supporters to plan the unthinkable – the elimination of the state’s reform school system. Miller had come to the realization that congregate institutions were not salvageable and had no place in a modern juvenile justice system.

Miller and his team envisioned a new system where most services were provided in the youth’s community and delivered by local nonprofit organizations. Relying on temporary funding from outside sources, such as the Federal Government’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the institutions were quickly downsized by placing youth in newly created alternative placements. Much of the planning occurred as the process was underway, since speed was considered essential to avoiding the inevitable backlash from institutional supporters.

When the institutions were emptied, Miller ensured their permanent closure by tearing down the buildings and quickly selling the property. This strategy was to prevent their reopening at some future date and to ensure that institutional funds were redirected to the emerging array of contracted community services. To create a political foundation for the new system and further promote its survival, the new community-based and contracted services were organized into an effective lobby to protect funding and stave off attempts to reopen the old system.

The dramatic closure of the Massachusetts reform schools ushered in a new era of juvenile justice, not just for the Bay State, but for the nation. While his reforms were at first rejected by conventional practitioners, time proved Miller right. His bold leadership demonstrated that reforms schools could be closed and that an alternative system of community-based interventions could be substituted for institutional confinement – lessons that form the basis for most current juvenile justice reform strategies.

Perhaps the most significant example of Miller’s legacy is California. Once the largest reform school system in the world, California’s youth corrections facilities came under severe scrutiny in the late 1990s and early 2000s following a series of scandals and media exposés that ultimately led to a successful lawsuit.

When the state’s correctional institutions proved impervious to change, California followed the path of Massachusetts. Through a combination of incentive legislation, legal action, policy advocacy, and budgetary pressures, the state reduced its institutional population by 90 percent and eliminated eight of its 11 state-run youth correctional facilities.

In the 200-year evolution of the American juvenile justice system, Jerome Miller ranks among its foremost leaders. The noted reformers of the 19th and early 20th century such as, Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams and Benjamin Lindsey, all possessed the single minded determination and courage necessary to pursue their vision while ignoring the potential personal consequences.

But they had the advantage of building something new where nothing previously existed or their reforms expanded on an already existing system. Miller’s challenge was compounded by having to tear down an entrenched structure and replace it with something new and untested.  By meeting this challenge, Miller set the course for the 21st century juvenile justice system and secured his place among history’s great social reformers.

This op-ed originally appeared in Youth Today and is reprinted here with permission. 

Wrong ideas: Curfews and Incarceration

Children are the future of any society. They are the product of human connection and are a true reflection of society’s investment in itself. Why, then, are some states in America embracing juvenile incarceration and curfews over humane and effective alternatives? Is America afraid of its youth population?

Nationwide, juvenile crime rates have been dropping. In California, according to Mike Males, Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, ever since reliable statistics have been kept youth been less prone to commit serious or petty crime.

The statewide data demonstrate that in the 1950s juvenile arrests totaled around 9 percent of the juvenile teenage population, including 1.3 percent for felonies. Fifty years later in 2010, juvenile arrests totaled just 4.4 percent of the teenage population, including 1.2 percent for felonies. He states, “never have California youth been more numerous, more racially diverse, or of recent immigrant origin. Never have youth been more uncurfewed, uncaged, and under-served.” Yet, despite all these conventional risk factors, juvenile crime rates have plummeted over the past several decades, and it is not due to incarceration-driven policies.

In fact, over the last 15 years, California’s youth prisons and local youth jails have released more than 10,000 formerly incarcerated youths onto the streets and in 2010, California youth crime stands at an all-time low.

An Annie E. Casey Foundation report points out “the data leaves little doubt. Substantially reducing juvenile incarceration rates has not proven to be a catalyst for more youth crime.” The report presents a fresh review of juvenile justice in America and makes future recommendations for improving the system. Among its findings, the report demonstrates that America’s youth prisons are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate. None more so than California’s ailing youth correctional facilities.

There are now only four facilities remaining in California’s broken state system, and one is scheduled to close by the end of the year. The state has been engaged in reform efforts since 2004, when it signed a consent decree pursuant to a lawsuit charging it with egregious conditions of care. This has driven the exorbitant cost of operating the facilities and yet very little progress has been made in way of reform. The latest audit, filed on Sept. 8, 2011, documented a lack of basic educational services for youths with special needs or in restrictive programs.

Many other states have recognized that the incarceration of youths is counterproductive public policy and have begun seeking alternatives. Benjamin Chambers authored a review in September 2011 documenting three strategies employed across at least 24 states in the country that are reducing state incarceration of young people. Illinois is planning to close a juvenile prison, and New York is reevaluating the age at which a young person can be sent to the adult system. It is now established that a law enforcement and corrections approach to juvenile delinquency is not appropriate.

Yet, amid these positive trends of de-incarcerating youth, an archaic policing contrivance is being resurrected across America. State and local governments have been reconsidering and enforcing teen curfew laws; a mechanism focused on policing the entire youth population.

In Atlanta officials announced intentions to enforce a longstanding teen curfew ordinance in June 2011, while Chicago and Cleveland Heights, Ohio passed curfew laws this year. Philadelphia tightened its existing curfew law in early August, 2011.

In Oakland, Calif. officials have been considering adopting a curfew, known as the Juvenile Protection Act, only to defer voting on the issue in early-October. However, according to the preponderance of research, including a 1998 CJCJ report, curfews do not work. In fact, research indicates, in the past 15 years, serious and violent juvenile crimes decreased far more in Oakland without a curfew than in Long Beach and other cities that impose them.

In today’s social climate, with juvenile crime rates at an all-time low and the majority of teenagers exhibiting exemplary law-abiding behavior, it seems that our streets are safer when there are more teens on them. Males observes that “not even in London during recent riots -- and certainly not in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto or other major cities -- do police forcibly sweep young people off the streets.”

Contrary to international norms, leading data-driven research, and well-established consensus in the field, some states continue to pursue law enforcement methods of addressing juvenile crime.  This is despite the fact that juvenile crime is waning.

California (and America at large) does not need to lock up its youth. It does not need to control their movements. It needs them on the streets (filling our public space with law-abiding citizens), in the community (going to school and gainfully employed), and engaging with American society; because regardless of how they are treated by the system, they are America’s future.