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.

Is Juvenile Justice the Missing Link in Georgia Corrections Reform?

Mike KleinGolfers love being on the leader board. Corrections officials, not so much as there is nothing to celebrate about Georgia being the national leader with the highest percentage of its adults under corrections system supervision. The ratio is 1-in-13 and it is the worst in the country.

Not only does it cost lots of money -– more than $1 billion per year in state dollars to run prisons -– but lofty incarceration, probation and parole statistics send the wrong message nationally and internationally when Georgia tries to market itself as a leading edge economy and destination.

Over the next several months you will hear extensive discussion about adult corrections system reform. A commission created by the 2011 General Assembly was told to develop proposals to streamline Georgia corrections without an adverse impact on public safety. The report is due to Gov. Nathan Deal in seven weeks, with legislation possible next year.

Not much of the process is being conducted in public -– there have been just three public meetings -– and the process does not include a juvenile justice system review. That is an unfortunate and perhaps costly oversight.  Doesn’t it make sense that a high percentage of adults who commit felonies and fill our prisons began their criminal careers as troubled youths?

“It seems to me that if we were to concentrate a lot of our efforts more in the juvenile justice arena then we might have greater success later in terms of reducing the crime rate,” said Judge Cynthia Wright, chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court. Wright appeared on a public safety panel hosted by Women in Leadership last week at The Commerce Club in Atlanta.

“I know that our (Fulton County) juvenile court judges have said that we don’t really have a lot of options where to send violent kids,” Wright said. “The amount of time that they can spend in any sort of detention facility has been reduced down to almost nothing. These kids go through the juvenile court and they are right back out on the street again.”

Crime is a repeat and often a family business.

”I keep seeing the same people I sent off before (and) generationally, see their family members,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs who serves on the Waycross Judicial Circuit in southeast Georgia. Boggs is also a corrections reform commission member, and he appeared alongside Wright on the Commerce Club panel.

Georgia adult corrections system numbers are ugly:  56,000 at least in prison and 160,000 on parole or probation. Georgia has the ninth largest state population but overall, the fourth largest corrections system. Totals do not include adults locked up in county or municipal jails.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice serves 60,000 juveniles per year.  Three-fourths are male.  On any given day 2,000 youths are detained in secure facilities and 20,000 are assigned to less restrictive community based settings. State juvenile justice system funding is going backward; down from just under $322 million in fiscal 2008 to about $286 million in Fiscal 2012.

Recidivism – the percentage rate at which a former inmate is back behind bars -– is nearly identical in the state’s adult corrections and juvenile systems. This year The Pew Center for the States reported 34.8 percent of Georgia adults released starting in 2004 were back behind bars within three years.  Comparable statewide juvenile data was 40 percent within 12 months during the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, the latest numbers available.

Why this happens and how to enact reform that does not impact public safety is why we have a commission.   One impetus is clearly financial – adult corrections costs are the fastest growing line item after Medicaid state dollars.  More important, Georgia cannot become the state that it aspires to be so long as crime and corrections dominate at least some of the media message.

The final thoughts here are from Waycross Superior Court Judge Boggs: “I sit around with some very conservative folks having a cup of coffee and they’ll say, lock ‘em up. But do you know that it will cost $80 million to build one 1,500-bed prison in this state? That’s not including the cost of the land and it will cost $25 million a year to operate that prison.

“We’re going to give the Legislature a lot to choose from and then they’re going to decide what is politically palatable and what they turn into legislation,” Boggs said. “It’s not one size fits all and it’s certainly not a magic pill. This is going to be a lengthy process. It will not be fixed by whatever bill comes out of the recommendation that comes out of this committee.”

This piece originally appeared on the website of the Georgia Policy Foundation.

Linda Wagner on the Juvenile Justice System: How Much are Evidence-Based Practices Worth?

Using evidence-based practices in the juvenile justice system reduces delinquency and avoids costs. Those of us in the field hear this regularly – but it can be hard to see their impact on a day-to-day basis.

How do we know they work? Let's start at the beginning. What we commonly refer to as "evidence-based practices" in the juvenile justice field are based on over 40 years of research regarding what works to reduce juvenile crime. Unlike studies that look at single programs, this research looked at over a hundred studies and found what consistently worked to reduce crime versus what consistently made crime worse. [1]

It showed that services that combine juvenile corrections (detention, probation, community service, restitution to victims, etc.) with treatment that address dynamic risk areas have a significant impact on reducing crime. Treatment includes alcohol and other drug treatment, school support, anger management, family counseling, mental health services, etc. The treatment aspect must include skill-building, so youth and families leave the system better able to live productive lives. The intensity of treatment must be matched to the youth’s risk level.

All youth in the system should receive this mix of sanctions and treatment, but low-risk youth should receive less intensive services and high-risk youth should receive more intensive services. (Research indicates that intensive services for lower risk youth can actually increase delinquency.)

This approach can literally turn the tide on delinquency. I will focus on the high-risk offenders to illustrate this point. In Oregon, where I work, we define "chronic juvenile offenders" as youth who commit three or more new criminal offenses during a follow-up period. A 2006 Oregon study of chronic juvenile offenders found that the percent of youth who became chronic dropped from 7.2 percent in 2001 to 6.2 percent in 2006.

So What? A lot of resources go toward crime reduction. What difference does it make to reduce the chronic group by one percentage point? It makes a huge difference. If Oregon had one percent fewer chronic offenders (7.2 percent to 6.2 percent) in a single year, there would have been 2,000 fewer crimes, with over $22 million in avoided costs.

The cost avoidance study has been conducted for each county in Oregon. For example, Douglas County has strategically implemented evidence-based practices over the last several years. Out of a sample of 699 juvenile offenders with a criminal referral, 9.6 percent were chronic offenders in 2001; a rate that dropped to 5.9 percent in 2008.

What would have been the impact in 2001 if the chronic youth offender group rate in Douglas County had been the same as it experienced in 2008? There would have been 284 fewer crimes, for a cost avoidance of $3,165,427. [2]

Reducing the percentage of youth who become chronic offenders even by a small amount significantly reduces crime in local communities and yields substantial cost avoidance. This occurs because the chronic group is so criminally active that even a small reduction creates very positive outcomes.

The cost avoidance calculation is based on:

a)  an average cost to victims established by a national study;

b)  costs to the juvenile justice system including personnel, programs, utilities, training, supplies, etc.;

c)  costs to law enforcement including making arrests and processing of juvenile crimes; and

d)  prosecution, defense, and court costs.

Unlike “cost savings” -- which suggests funds sitting in a bank -- cost avoidance is related to the cost of each criminal referral and what is “avoided” by reducing delinquency.

Investing in evidence-based practices is the best way to achieve significant cuts in crime and their associated costs. All we have to do is look at the data.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


[1] Latessa, Edward J 2004. "From Theory to Practice: What Works in Reducing Recidivism?" State of Crime and Justice in Ohio, pp. 170-171.

[2] Wagner, Linda 2010. "The Cost Avoidance Model," Douglas County Juvenile Department 4th Annual Report Card To The Community: Fiscal Year 2009-2010, p 5.


Future Uncertain for Georgia Commission on Family Violence

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence has bounced among state agencies for the last 18 years - from Human Resources to the Administrative Office of the Courts to Corrections and back to the Courts. Now there are new questions about its future. 

In the most recent change, the General Assembly voted late in the 2010 session to move the agency’s $428,000 budget from the Department of Corrections in the executive branch to the Administrative Office of the Courts in the judicial branch—but failed to amend the law to actually move the agency because time ran out. Corrections transferred management to the Courts by agreement.

Now there’s discussion about moving the Commission again, this time to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created by outgoing Governor Sonny Perdue two years ago. Supporters say services should be combined under one umbrella. But the legislature has rejected such a move in the past.

The Commission is scheduled to meet on Friday under the leadership of Judge Peggy Walker, a Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge elected as chairwoman in September. Walker said this week that she will ask members of the Commission to form a committee to look at how it should be governed. The governance committee will examine the pros and cons of different arrangements, look at how other states handle similar agencies, and make a recommendation to the full Commission. Proposed changes must go to the legislature.

“We will be looking at where the Commission can best be attached to serve its functions,” Walker said. “The critical issue is the independence of the Commission. . . The focus will absolutely be on the work, not the politics.”

The Commission was formed in 1992 to develop a comprehensive state-wide plan for ending family violence. The agency conducts research, provides training, monitors legislation, certifies intervention programs, and co-ordinates the statewide Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project. It also offers guidance and works with task forces in local communities.

A degree of autonomy is crucial, Walker said, because to fulfill its function the Commission has to point out flaws in the state’s system. “We have to be able to look at where the gaps are and where the problems are, and we have to be able to have very frank discussions,” Walker said.

Friday’s gathering will be the first full meeting for many of the 37 commissioners. Perdue made 24 appointments in August, including two reappointments. The new group took office in September. Besides the governor’s appointees, the Commission includes by statute three members each from the state house and senate, and representatives of some state agencies and departments.

Some outgoing members oppose a possible move to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, partially out of fear that the move would eventually mean elimination of the Commission.

Two years ago, the governor tried to do away with the Commission; in the 2010 session, the governor’s office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the Commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has obtained a copy of a proposed Intergovernmental Agreement among the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Commission on Family Violence that would give administrative oversight of the Commission to the Office for Children and Families. The agreement, which would have taken effect on Sept. 10, has not been addressed by the Commission.

Some Commission supporters speculate that an effort is underway to accomplish administratively what could not be done legislatively.

In a letter to new members, outgoing member Judge Clarence Seeliger of DeKalb County expressed concern that supporting a move to the Office for Children and Families was a “pre-condition” of being appointed for new members.

Walker, who has been on the Commission since 2006 and was just reappointed, said Perdue “never made it a pre-condition of appointment to adopt any position,” although, she said, “the governor made it clear what he wanted.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, as head of the judicial branch where the Commission is now housed, said she doesn’t believe she has the authority to transfer the budget without action by the state legislature. “Every indication I have is that the Commission is functioning very well,” she said.

Hunstein takes great interest in the work of the Commission. She headed a group formed by the Supreme Court in 1989 that looked at issues of gender bias statewide. “One of the most significant findings was that there was a real problem with domestic violence cases and how they were being handled by law enforcement and the judiciary system,” she said. That group recommended creation of a statewide commission on domestic violence. The Commission on Family Violence resulted.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to coordinate and fund prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation. Discussions are underway for the possible transfer of about $13 million in funding for domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers from the Department of Human Services to the Office.

The Governor's Office for Children and Families announced in August that it was forming a new family violence unit that would “develop a comprehensive strategic plan for eliminating family violence.” To “jump start” the development, there were six regional hearings around the state in September and October.

Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke attended the September meeting of the Commission on Family Violence and was questioned about her agency’s role in domestic violence.

“I’m trying to figure out why we have two different state agencies doing the same thing,” one legislative member of the Commission told her. “It’s the duty of the Commission to do this. I’m trying to figure out why your office is doing this.”

In a telephone interview this week, Bennecke said her office “has a number of strengths. We want to see how we can contribute.” She said conversations are ongoing about what the roles of various entities will be. “How we all work together collectively is still under discussion.”

Asked whether she would like to see the Commission come under her office, she said, “I wouldn’t personally say I want to go on the record about that . . . I’m looking for my direction from the governor, whom I report to.”

In January, that governor will be Nathan Deal. And the legislature will convene again with some new members. It’s unclear what that will mean for who controls work against domestic violence in Georgia.