Monday 7 February 2011

Two questions about the plan to shut down youth prisons

Do you fix an old system or start 
from scratch?
Governor Jerry Brown has been throwing out some seemingly radical proposals about the future of corrections in California since he took office. Most of them involve taking responsibilities that are currently handled by the state and moving them to the counties. Why? On its surface, the Governor says the general move to localism will save money. In the criminal justice arena, localism–or “community-based corrections”–is also a big rallying point for reformers.
On Wednesday night’s Crosscurrents, we reported on the debate over closing the California Division of Juvenile Justice, the state’s youth correctional system. One of the most interesting things about the debate is that people who agree on almost everything do not agree on whether or not to shut down the DJJ. Specifically, Barry Krisberg, of the Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley Law and Dan Macallair, of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, are on different sides of few issues other than this one. Their different takes on the issue break down to two big questions:
Who will better prepare the kids for adulthood?
The guiding principle of juvenile justice is the second chance. A person convicted of a crime as a juvenile in California may serve time, may be on probation, may have to perform community service–but no matter what, their record is wiped clean and they are released from any sort of custody by age 25. That means the vast majority of these kids will return to their home communities. (There are a small, but growing number of minors who are charged as adults, and are transfered into the adult system when they come of age.) As of 2005, the numbers showed that those who spent time in the state’s juvenile corrections system were not adequately prepared to take their second chance and succeed. About 81% of wards released from DJJ were arrested within three years of release and 56% either returned to DJJ or entered an adult prison. Those are old numbers (and the most recently available), but they’re illustrative of the greater point that many believe the state system is not working.
Would things be different if kids stayed at the county level? Apparently, it depends on which county. At the moment, in Alameda County, the recidivism rate for youth under the jurisdiction of county probation is about 80 percent. But models being piloted elsewhere in the country (and the state) give substance to the idea that counties can actually reform juvenile offenders. Particularly, the state of Missouri has gone to a primarily county-based system and cut its recidivism rate to 7.3% in 2007. The model houses kids in small groups of 10-30 per facility, which are spread around the state in an effort to keep kids close to their homes and families. The program in these facilities is focused on therapy and rehabilitation, and the idea is that they do not look like prisons and that the staff doesn’t make them feel like prisons, thereby not steeping kids at an impressionable age with prison culture. San Francisco’s Log Cabin Ranch, near La Honda, is based on this model, as is the juvenile probation system in Santa Cruz County.
Barry Krisberg, however, has pointed out that not all counties are moving in this direction. Los Angeles County has 474 juveniles in DJJ facilities who would presumably be returned to a local juvenile hall–and the conditions in those juvenile halls have come under considerable criticism (and court orders). Meanwhile, the DJJ has undergone reform: it’s smaller, with about 1,200 wards compared to 10,000 in 1997 and state law now mandates that only the most serious offenders are committed; it’s subject to court supervision thanks to a 2003 Prison Law Office case; and it’s moved at least somewhat away from using things like lock-ups to discipline kids. Perfect, no, Krisberg says, but it’s getting better.
Which brings us to the next question:
Do you fix an old system or start from scratch?
The state, Dan Macallair says, cannot fundamentally change–it’s too big and too entrenched in its ways. As many improvements as have been made, they’re not enough, and they’re all we’re going to get.
Barry Krisberg, on the other hand, says that the existence of these state institutions are all that stands in the way of young offenders being increasingly tried and incarcerated as adults. If the option of a more punitive, secure facility for kids who commit serious offenses like rape, homicide, and assault is not on the table, prosecutors will be reluctant to simply let such young offenders go into juvenile halls and/or group homes to serve their time.
Initial rumors seem to indicate that DJJ-like facilities would still be used for kids who commit a certain level of offense–likely small facilities built in several counties that could house serious offenders from that general region. The difference? They’d be county run instead of state run. So what’s the difference between keeping the DJJ running a small number of facilities and opening similar facilities run by counties? Mainly, oversight.
If the DJJ stays up and running, Krisberg points out, there’s an ongoing court case and legal agreement that allows lawyers and reformers regular access to juvenile facilities, which are traditionally pretty closed off to the outside world. Lawyers in the case against California’s Youth Authority, including Krisberg, fought for years to erect this form of oversight, and the collaboration between the state and reformers has resulted in continued changes. If kids were kept in remote, secure facilities in the counties, who would provide a check on the system?
Advocates for closing the DJJ say they hope the state will set up an oversight body that will ensure that counties are taking good care of juvenile offenders–and that body, they say, would be more effective because, unlike now, it would be the function of a different level of government than it regulates.
But other than traditional forms of oversight, like regulatory agencies and courts, many reformers believe that moving kids to the counties will have a built in form of regulation–the people.
In many reformers’ minds, there’s a sense that these large state systems, which take offenders and lock them up in distant, often rural locations–were borne out of counties’ desire to take their “problem children” and their violent, troubled, and in many cases, mentally ill residents and put them somewhere else. That’s one of the reasons why groups like the Ella Baker Center in Oakland (through they’re Books Not Bars program) has been fighting adamantly for returning the kids in DJJ to the counties for supervision here. With juvenile justice, as with adult corrections, reformers believe that if offenders are kept closer to home, that the community will pay more attention to them. And, the idea is, if these offenders are kept closer to home and are kept in or released to the community sooner, people will care more about their successful rehabilitation, and less about whether they’re locked away for five years or ten.
Is “community corrections” the answer to our recidivism and crime woes? That’s the question legislators will be asking themselves as this plan to shut down the DJJ–and diminish the role of other state correctional agencies–progresses.

Rina Palta

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