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What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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Los Angeles Board Of Supervisors Votes To Launch ‘Historic’ Juvenile Diversion Plan

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ambitious plan to divert thousands of the county’s youth away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems, connecting them instead to a comprehensive array of supportive services.

Speakers stepped to the microphones to declare their ardent support for the 78-page report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” which provided the framework for the sweeping strategy proposed.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, speaks to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

“This is an historic day in the history of justice reform,” Dr. Robert Ross told the board. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S.

“We know that 80 percent of the youth now being arrested in the county could be diverted to community-based services if the plan is realized,” he said. The county could “lead the nation.”

The report said that 13,665 arrests and citations were issued to the county’s young in 2015, according to the Department of Justice Statistics. And approximately 11,000 of those 2015 arrests — “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies” — would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, had the proposed program been up and running.

Ross also told the board that the Endowment had been supporting restorative justice and diversion programs in California communities such as Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. And they had promising preliminary data, he said, particularly from Oakland.

In the course of these programs, “young people come face-to-face with the people they have harmed,” and then make a plan for “making it right with the folks they’ve harmed,” he said, plus get health services that address many of the their needs. The programs are “proven to work better than incarceration and cost considerably less,” he said.

Michael Nash, director of the Office of Child Protection, said the program will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion

Another enthusiastic speaker was Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, now the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection.

As a judge, he’d long been supportive of youth diversion, Nash said. And now he was “very concerned” by the numbers of youth crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. “But this program,” he said, will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion.

Several of the speakers described the 18-month process of designing the proposed new strategy as an unusually inclusive one, involving law enforcement leaders, local judges, county officials, health experts, community advocates and young people who had themselves been incarcerated.

The point was emphasized by Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) who, with her young colleagues, had come before the board many times, often to protest a vote, such as previous motions having to do with plans to expand the county’s jail system.

But on Tuesday, McGill talked of the honor she and other YJC members felt to be “a part of the youth diversion work group,” and how they “fully support” the plan moving forward.

She also highlighted some additional areas of focus her group thought “should be robustly included in the implementation.” They believe it is essential to protect youth from the “databases that track arrests.” This was mentioned in the report, she said, but it would require oversight.

Another of McGill’s concerns had to do with California’s Senate Bill 395, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The new law guarantees that every young person of age 15 or under will speak to a lawyer before being interrogated by law enforcement. She stressed the necessity of including LA’s Public Defender’s Office and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as “key partners moving forward,” so that “even young people who are being diverted have an opportunity to speak to counsel.”

Jessica Ellis, the director of Centinela Youth Services, was also on the subcommittee that created the diversion program-to-be. She told the board how “critical” it was to have “system-involved youth” continue to be part of the “implementation phases” of the project. Centinela Youth Service has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a successful restorative justice diversion program, which has frequently been cited as evidence that the newly presented countywide strategy is on the right track.

Peter Espinoza, the director of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, had some suggestions along with his praise: the wish that “our menu of services is robust and diverse” and would include “a very serious focus on education and job readiness.” Most of the work he previously did as Superior Court judge, he added, “was aimed at the intersection of educational failure and justice system involvement.” The new diversion

When  it was time for the five board members to vote,  Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board’s chairman, asked the board’s executive officer to record a unanimous vote.

“Giving youth access to supportive services as an alternative to arrest and incarceration is both morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” he said later, after the vote was finished.

Motion co-author Janice Hahn agreed: “The best juvenile system is one that keeps kids out of it in the first place.”

This story was written for WitnessLA.

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

California Tries — With Difficulty — to Implement 2 Major New Laws to Help Sex-Trafficked Kids

California is attempting to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters. But despite the passage of two important and well-intentioned new laws in the last two years, both of which affect youth who have been sexually exploited, change has not come easily or quickly.

The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services. After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar. Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.

“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.

Decriminalizing kids

Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.

The first step toward decriminalization of sex trafficked children was SB 855, signed in June 2014, which required the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to be officially recognized as child abuse. It also allocated $14 million in funding for CSEC training for county and foster care workers and implementation of support programs. However, despite the passage of this earlier law, youth sex trafficking victims were still viewed by many police primarily as lawbreakers.

Next came Senate Bill 1322, which bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.

But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another. On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California

Cultural change is a major part of implementation, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.

The 2014 bill, SB 855, marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, Heimov said. It also helped by allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local CSEC training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for the victimized youth.

But while SB 855 was a step in the right direction, it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said. “Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”

The glacial pace of cultural change

Now, even with the newer law, SB 1322, in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.

“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”

Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime, the other is the peace officer or safety role.

So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime. They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”

Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.

“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.

Maheen Kaleem

Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.

“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.

In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.

Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.

Johanna Gendelman

In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agency hotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.

“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics. And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.” Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.

Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.

“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it's a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].” The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”

With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.

Changing the before and after of child sexual trafficking

According to the California Child Welfare Council, a high percentage of youth who fall prey to sexual exploitation had prior involvement with the child welfare system, very often in group homes.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system. Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.

With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.

However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.  

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes. Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”

While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.

“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.

According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:

  1. The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
  2. The Resource Family Approval process for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
  3. Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.

Goal 1: Making the shift to STRTPs

“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”

In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.

“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.

Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.

(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)

There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.

“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.

And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.

According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.

Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.

Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.

But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.

Which brings us to the second and third goals.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks at an event in October 2015.

Goals 2 and 3: Resources and families

Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.

Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.

His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.

But finding families isn’t easy.  And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.

“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”

As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.

According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.

The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.

But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”

Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.

Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important.  But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.  

Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.

Scaling the model  

The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.

“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.

In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources.  But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.

The legal side

Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.

“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.

“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.

“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.” At least, she said “we truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

This story has been updated.

This story was a cooperative effort among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's Los Angeles bureau, the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and WitnessLA.

Getting $50 Million More for California After-school Programs Took Group 3 Years of Lobbying

LOS ANGELES — California after-school programs statewide were able to breathe a small sigh of relief this year after Gov. Jerry Brown set aside an extra $50 million for them from the general budget.

Getting SB 78 passed took three years of lobbying by a statewide coalition called California Afterschool Advocacy Alliance that included a local coalition made up of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles Police Department and more than 10 after-school programs like Beyond the Bell, After School All Stars and LA’s BEST.

“Part of the success is just not giving up, and continuing to raise the issue with elected officials so they understand that this is a real issue, there’s really something at stake,” said CEO Eric Gurna of LA’s BEST, one of the local coalition leaders.

Since 2002, California’s after-school programs have operated on $7.50 per child per day. With inflation and minimum wage increases, it got harder to keep the programs running. But now those programs are getting an extra 70 cents per child per day.

Before the new funding passed, LA’s BEST faced a $1 million deficit for years to come, Gurna said. It was unsustainable, irresponsible, and they couldn’t cut their way out of it, he said. So, they started contacting organizations that could help.

“The only reason they were coming together was because we asked them repeatedly,” Gurna said. “It was the deputy mayor, the local superintendent, the lobbyists from the school district and LA’s BEST all coming together. It shows it’s an issue of importance to the whole community, not just after-school programs advocating for funding.”

He said the key to success was building a coalition of groups in Los Angeles that might normally compete for grants and funding but were willing to make formal declarations of support for an important issue.

And also California state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat, who wrote the bill and rallied support.

“I didn’t realize they hadn’t had an increase in 10 years and that was just unbelievable to me and made me want to author it,” Leyva said in an interview. “Kids will find something to do if they don’t have an after-school program and it will be something we don’t want them to be doing.”

The bill received bipartisan support. The turning point came when statewide coalition lobbyists flew two elementary school girls out to testify and explain why their after-school program was so important to them.

“Legislation seems nebulous but when organizations can bring hard evidence and stories, that makes all the difference in the world,” Leyva said.

But the support wasn’t unanimous. The California Teachers Association opposed the bill. It was not against more funding for after-school programs, said CTA media consultant Frank Wells, but it was concerned about the funding source.

The money came from Proposition 98, which requires a minimum percentage of the state budget to be devoted to K-12 education. Allotting $50 million for after-school programs means $50 million less for school services, supplies and employee salaries and benefits.

“That reduces money available to other programs coming from K-12 curriculum. It’s devoted specifically to that so it should be funded,” Wells said.

The bill originally proposed allocating $100 million to after-school programs, but, Gurna explained, $50 million is still a victory.

“As a coalition we took it to the finish line, but we’d been running for a long time,” he said.

For Leyva, a $50 million victory doesn’t mark the end of the fight.

“This was a first attempt, this will certainly not be the last attempt. We have a long way to go.”

LA’s BEST serves 25,000 children in the Unified School District. They play sports, conduct science experiments, eat supper daily and go on field trips. Studies from the University of California at Los Angeles say the program improves test scores in middle school, and decreases dropout and juvenile crime rates.

Other organizations in the Los Angeles coalition were Woodcraft Rangers, Think Together, A World Fit for Kids, arc, EduCare Foundation, TEAM PRIME TIME, STAR and the LA Conservation Corps.

This story has been updated.


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Californians Lean Toward Eliminating Youth Prisons in New Survey

LOS ANGELES — California’s juvenile prisons have long had a poor reputation as mere stops on the way to grown-up prisons, overcrowded places where reform or rehabilitation were rarely achieved.

That bad rep might help explain why most Californians voice some support for closing youth prisons, according to a recent survey commissioned by the California Endowment, a private health foundation.

A majority of respondents want to close juvenile corrections facilities on those terms, with 22 percent voicing strong support and 39 percent saying they “somewhat support” closures. Only 13 percent were strongly opposed to the idea, while 20 percent remained “somewhat opposed.”

Instead of feeding teens into a system that exacerbates trauma and harm, we need to offer meaningful alternatives, Democratic Sen. Holly J. Mitchell said.

“We need to get frank about the overpolicing in certain communities and the perceptions that black and brown kids are more violent and less deserving, and how that impacts their lives,” she said. “In some cases, the pendulum has swung way too far, to where kids’ typical adolescent behaviors have been criminalized.”

Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, a private health foundation that commissioned the survey, praised Californians in a statement for understanding “what the research clearly shows: incarcerating young people is a failed strategy that must be replaced with what works” by shifting “tax dollars from punishment to prevention.”

Between June 19 and 23, researchers conducted an online survey and collected responses from 1,042 California adults. The study, which set quotas for respondents to ensure a “representative, demographically balanced sample,” found little difference along lines of gender, age, ethnicity or political party. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement: Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans voiced some support for closing youth prisons, with 47 percent of GOP respondents opposed and others declining response.  

Across the board, more people supported closing juvenile prisons — to the tune of five to 10 percentage points — after hearing about their high costs, some of the reasons behind incarcerations and the racial disparities in the system.

California spends more than $1 billion a year on its youth prison system — one of the nation’s largest — and operates more than 125 state and county lockups, according to the Endowment’s report. Of the 6,000 young people currently locked up, about three-fourths have been found guilty of nonviolent offenses such as theft, vandalism or even running away from home.

About 80 percent of incarcerated youth are black or Latino, according to the report. By comparison, about 57 percent of California youth were black or Latino in 2016, according to the census.

That overrepresentation of youth of color in our juvenile prisons reflects the troubling racial disparity that is seen in the adult prison population, too — a disparity that experts increasingly believe is a result of persistent biases that are present in modern policing, and date back to slavery.

Legislators are troubled by those parallels, and the way adolescents are facing adult consequences for what too-often amounts to childhood indiscretions.

A recent study from experts at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that the problem of biases in perceptions are particularly pronounced for black girls, who are viewed by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” when they are 5 to 14 years old. The researchers found that this characterization “may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.

Mitchell and Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, filed a package of bills this past spring that intend to divert children from landing in juvenile detention facilities, including a provision that would bar kids under the age of 12 from being sent to juvenile prisons, and a mandate that anyone under age 18 speak to an attorney before waiving his or her rights in police interviews. Another bill in the package makes California law reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and bars minors from being sentenced to life without parole.

Although that last bill is rooted in a precedent set by the highest court in the U.S., Mitchell says, like most criminal justice proposals, her legislation faces an uphill battle with advocates for law enforcement and district attorneys in Sacramento. One of the bills in the package has been signed into law; the others are still in the mix.

Mitchell and Lara also want to crack down on what’s called a debt trap in the juvenile justice system — court and detention fees. The Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm, says that too often, a family’s inability to pay these fees can push the child deeper into the system. “Racially disproportionate treatment in the system leaves people of color with significantly more criminal justice debt, including burdensome administrative fees,” according to a University of California at Berkeley study.

In California, juvenile corrections have faced reform efforts for years. In 2003, advocates brought a lawsuit (Farrell v. Cate) alleging unsafe overcrowding and the rise of gangs and violence within facilities, among other problems. A consent decree was issued in late 2004 to require state juvenile corrections officials to improve safety, staff training and access to mental health, education and religious services. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation that barred low-level offenders from being committed to the state system and offered county probation systems more funding to keep more offenders local.

In the years since, Gov. Jerry Brown has called for California to become the first state to entirely eliminate state-run prisons for juvenile offenders. After years of closures, the state currently operates three youth prisons.  

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

This story has been updated.


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California Governor May Toss Certain Juvenile Life Sentences

On the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown is a key that could unlock the prison gates for inmates sentenced as youth to life without parole.

The key comes in the form of legislation, Senate Bill 9, a long-fought proposal to allow such inmates to petition for resentencing after serving 15 years. Inmates are not eligible if the crime involved torture or the killing of officials such as law enforcement officers. To get a chance at parole or a reduced sentence, the offender must convince a judge of their remorse and their progress toward rehabilitation.

Advocates say the proposal is a win for children, but opponents say it’s a loss for crime victims.

“The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act [SB 9] ensures youth are held accountable for their crimes in a way that reflects the distinct characteristics of youth, with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” said Jody Kent-Lavy, Director and National Coordinator of the national Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in a written statement.

Her organization argues that children have a greater capacity than adults for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and that the California proposal provides space for both.  Dozens of organizations, most involved with childrens’ rights, welfare, or legal reform, submitted their names in favor of the bill.

In a statement, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author and a child psychologist, said that in youth, impulse control, planning and critical thinking are not yet fully developed. Yee explained that his bill “reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”

But state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) wants the governor, a Democrat, to veto the bill.  The southern California senator thinks the bill undermines two public referenda from the 1990s, when state voters approved life without parole sentences for some 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of murder.

If SB 9 is signed into law, Anderson wrote in a public letter, it “will encourage criminal drug gangs to increase their recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds to commit heinous murders, with the lure that they could get paroled if ever caught.”

Anderson ended by saying he supports “the victims of violent crime — not their murderers.”

More than a dozen organizations came out against SB 9, most of them either from law enforcement or crime victim groups.

The California District Attorneys Association wrote to the legislature saying existing law already properly grants judges discretion to impose lesser sentences, therefore they “oppose any effort, whether overt or veiled, to substantially weaken the statutory response to special circumstances murder committed by specified juveniles.” They also think the eligibility standards for resentencing are too low.

Under the bill, if a resentencing is turned down, the inmate could ask again after 20 years and again during their 24th year in custody.

The bill went through several amendments since its introduction in December 2010.  The state Assembly and Senate sent the bill to Brown in August on nearly party-line votes: Democrats for, Republicans against.

The state Senate projected the annual cost of resentencing hearings would rise from $52,000 in fiscal year 2012 to as much as $90,000 two years later.  It found the savings for the cost of incarceration are “unknown,” but potentially up to $25,000 per inmate per year.

The bill would apply to about 300 youth offenders, according to Yee.  Brown can sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Still, a Promise of Reform for California’s Juvenile Justice System

In January 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a historic reform of the state juvenile justice system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), by giving counties full responsibility for managing their offender population.

This initiative, named Juvenile Justice Realignment, would have ended state intake of youth by 2013 and closed all facilities by 2015. The governor subsequently rescinded this proposal due to aggressive lobbying by state law enforcement associations.

However, the promise of a more sensible juvenile justice system remains within the 2012-2013 state budget, signed into law in July. Some counties stand poised to take advantage of the opportunity; and in partnership with foundations, they are leading the way to a 21st century juvenile justice system.

This year, a coalition of reform-minded organizations successfully reframed policy discussion across the state, despite strong opposition. While Gov. Brown dropped his original realignment proposal, he introduced three key juvenile justice reforms in its place. These join with larger concerns about county-level responsibility and the disproportionate cost for maintaining a fiscally irresponsible system. The measures will save the state $24.8 million.

California’s reforms include a new fee structure requiring counties to pay $24,000 annually per youth housed at DJF facilities. This fee challenges counties to reconsider how they manage high-risk youth. Previous reports demonstrate the exorbitant cost of maintaining DJF, despite the high recidivism rate for youth released from state custody.

Admittedly, this fee is significantly lower than the $125,000 fee originally proposed by Gov. Brown, which would have totaled $67.7 million. The governor issued a subsequent reprieve on collecting these fees, while cutting funds across other state services. However, the $24,000 fee does require state-dependent counties to assume a more equitable share of the cost, given their higher use of DJF.

The 2012-2013 budget also reforms detrimental DJF administrative practices. It ends “time adds,” whereby DJF authorities punished youth by extending the date of future parole board meetings. This practice prolonged commitment time, but ignored the underlying mental health or behavioral issues for high-risk youth. It also reduces the maximum age for DJF-committed youth to 23 years old from 25. As with “time adds,” this limits extended confinement time and brings California more in line with the national average maximum age of 20.

However, those on the front lines of juvenile justice — California’s 58 counties, must lead this reform effort. The state cannot simply tear down DJF nor offload high-risk youth to ill-equipped counties. Instead, reform must foster local innovation and capacity building. Some counties are partnering with private foundations to do just that.

The Sierra Health Foundation is one such private foundation and recently introduced their Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI). This facilitates county self-assessment procedures, expert assistance, and funding streams for a more effective juvenile justice system.

PYJI targets crossover youth, those previously involved with the welfare system and now in the juvenile justice system. Such high-risk youth often spring from a history of traumatic and abusive experiences. PYJI reframes these youth as community assets, with potential to better their neighborhoods. The initiative also identifies wraparound service delivery and trauma-informed care as the innovative model practices to best address these youths’ needs, while potentially improving operational capacity.

PYJI uses grant funding to improve county-level practices and seed innovation. The Sierra Health Foundation first gives applicant counties the resources and technical assistance for a one-year planning phase, followed by a multi-year grant to those accepted into the program.

A technical assistance team works with local sites to foster model practices throughout this process. The initiative also brings together participants for cross-county dialogue.

This conversation ensures reform is not embargoed, just as PYJI facilitates relationships across stakeholder groups. A grant solely to probation departments neither serves public safety, nor does it lower recidivism rates.

Comprehensive juvenile justice reform is multi-faceted. First, the state must eliminate the recognized failures of DJF. Gov. Brown’s budget, amid growing political momentum, shows this to be increasingly the case.

Beyond this state activity, California’s counties and nonprofits mark the way for innovative model practices. Both demonstrate a new understanding of the values necessary for serving California’s at-risk youth and a promise for responsible juvenile justice realignment.

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.

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


New Year, New Opportunities for Reform

Emily Luhrs and Selena Teji

California’s budget crisis may sweep in the state’s most drastic juvenile justice reforms as early as January 2012. Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget measure involves implementation of “trigger cuts” on January 1st which will affect virtually every facet of social services in the state.

For juvenile justice, this includes requiring counties to pay more of their tab for housing their most serious and violent offenders in the state’s Department of Juvenile Facilities (DJF). Currently it costs the state taxpayer approximately $200,000 per year to house a youth in the ineffective and irreparable state system, while counties have contributed only minimally to the cost.  Under the triggers, the counties will be responsible for $125,000 of this cost per youth, or they can recall their youths and serve them locally.

This is great news for state taxpayers in California who have been shouldering the burden of an incredibly dysfunctional, inadequate and ever-shrinking institutional system for the past decade.  While the DJF population has decreased drastically since the 1990s, it has been under a consent decree since 2004 and currently houses only 1,054 youth in three remaining facilities, with 80 percent of wards being rearrested within three years of release.

It is also good news for advocates of best practices. Research overwhelmingly supports that local custody and supervision with access to community-based treatment options is more beneficial for youth and provides greater hope for successful reentry. While it is true many of these youth are the highest-needs population, the punitive and violent environment of DJF has demonstrated that it is even less equipped than counties to house, let alone treat, this population.

Looking back, the trigger should come as no surprise; this is not the first time realignment has been on the table in the state’s capitol.  In fact, in 2007, despite considerable trepidation, counties rose to the challenge of low-level offender realignment, and have been serving 99 percent of juvenile offenders at the local level; they do a much better job than the state ever could.  In June of this year, Gov. Brown proposed a three-year scaled full realignment plan that provided funding to counties to serve the remaining population under the state’s care, which is less than 1 percent of the state’s juvenile delinquent population.

It was rejected and opposed by the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC), the California District Attorney’s Association (CDAA) and the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), among other advocacy groups. A “buy back” legislation was then proposed, in which counties would have a choice -- take the money and serve youth locally, or contract with the state and send all of the county’s eligible youth to DJF. This was also vehemently opposed and eventually juvenile justice realignment was shelved, despite warnings from the governor that budget triggers could come into effect in January 2012.

However, recent data shows that juvenile crime is on the decline at the same time as juvenile de-incarceration is taking hold in California.  In a study of California’s most populous counties, between 1998-2010 juvenile incarceration rates dropped 45% as felony juvenile crime rates plunged 32%.  These promising trends provide ample reason to believe that full juvenile realignment can and should happen.

Yet a few counties continue to rely heavily on the state system. Several individual counties have criticized the trigger measure, including Monterey, Tulare, and Stanislaus counties. According to the most recent 2010-11 data, Monterey ranks as the most state-dependent county among California’s populous counties (more than 100,000); sending juveniles to DJF at the highest rate per felony arrest. One-third of the youth Monterey sent to DJF were categorized as the least serious offenders DJF accepts.

Tulare and Stanislaus counties also ranked higher than the state average for DJF use. In fact, out of California’s 48 counties, 13 accounted for 46 percent of all DJF commitments and only 37 percent of juvenile felony arrests in 2009. It is their overuse of state institutions as a solution for local problems that caused the original overcrowding of DJF in the 1990’s and is ultimately creating the barrier to realignment now.

It is understandable that these are the counties with the most resistance to Gov. Brown’s trigger cuts. They are historically state-dependent and will struggle to build the infrastructure and culture necessary to serve this high needs population, without funding or support.

California counties need to re-consider the opportunity they were given in the June realignment proposal for DJF closure, and advocate for its reinstatement while there is still funding remaining that could be funneled to counties to serve this population.

In a December 7, 2011 letter to Gov. Brown, CSAC, CDAA and CPOC continued to oppose attempts at realignment. Meanwhile, innovative self-reliant counties such as Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara are open to the opportunity to take full responsibility for their own.  Alameda Probation Chief David Muhammad noted that “they are a challenging population, but we have the space and potential to do a much better job than the state.”

He is asking Gov. Brown to reinstate a realignment proposal that would provide counties with $150,000 per serious juvenile offender. Overall, the majority of counties would not be significantly impacted by the closure of DJF because they have already been serving their juvenile offenders, even the high-needs and high-risk youth, locally.

This budgetary reform measure is no doubt drastic, but it presents an opportunity for counties to utilize best juvenile justice practices, forcing them to relinquish the mentality that state incarceration is the only way. No longer can our most high-needs, high-risk youth be pushed out of site and out of mind, transferring the burden onto the state taxpayer. There is no justification for maintaining the state facilities at such high costs when so many other areas of our social services are being cut deeply.

If counties decide to take back their youth and provide comprehensive individualized treatment and placements, it would ultimately result in not only cost-savings, but lower recidivism rates and increased long-term public safety.