|Wasting Juvenile Justice Tax Dollars|
|Thursday, 09 February 2012 11:29|
By Selena Teji for California Progress Report
California has demonstrated it no longer has the capacity to serve the state’s high-risk juvenile offenders by a 75% recidivism rate and continued scrutiny under the Farrell lawsuit, now in its ninth year. The state-run Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) is still unable to provide adequate education and programming to its youth population despite reform efforts and a per capita cost of approximately $190,000 this past year alone. Not to mention that the facilities themselves are in dire need of reconstruction.
The state’s three remaining facilities are archaic and continue to be plagued by significant maintenance problems, such as “serious issues with plumbing, including leaking sinks and toilets, poor lighting in the rooms, inadequate ability for staff to observe youth in their rooms, and dangerous recreation areas…[that] are virtually unusable for regular outside recreation.” At Ventura YCF (which is currently overcrowded) the roofs are leaking and need replacement. Youths in the facility are reporting a lack of sanitary drinking water and extensive sewage leakage.
Housing only 985 youth as of February 2, 2012, DJF continues to be a drain on the state budget while providing very little benefit to its youth population or the taxpayers. Yet, while massive budget cuts are being enforced across education and other social services, the juvenile justice budget triggers that should have gone into effect on January 1, 2012 to stem the state cost of running DJF are not being collected. Recognizing that DJF is an unnecessary and ineffective drain on the state’s resources and represents a failed approach to juvenile justice, for the second year in a row the Governor is proposing full juvenile justice realignment; ceasing commitments to DJF and eventually closing the facilities entirely.
Closure of DJF would relieve the state of its obligations under the Farrell lawsuit, including the Superior Court mandate to entirely replace its facilities at an estimated cost of $1 million per cell. While it is not acceptable for youths to be housed in such grossly substandard facilities, there is no money in the state budget to rebuild them, and thus no way for the state to be compliant with the lawsuit reforms. In addition, the money saved by eliminating DJF could be transferred to California’s counties, to support development of appropriate services for this high-risk population at the local level; a better plan for securing long-term public safety.
Counties have much more potential to be successful at rehabilitating this high-risk population, by virtue of their easier access to local services and youth support networks. Counties can engage the family and community-based organizations in rehabilitation efforts from the moment the youth enters the system through re-entry; and counties have enough space in their maximum security juvenile facilities to house the most serious offenders. In fact, the state has been investing money in upgrading county juvenile justice facilities for some time now.
Between 1996 and 2007 California’s counties received over $455 million from federal and state grants to renovate or entirely rebuild local juvenile justice facilities. Approximately 96% of that funding was spent on maximum security juvenile halls. During this period of renovation, counties experienced a huge expansion in their institutional capacity; adding over 2,500 new beds while juvenile crime declined and the juvenile institutional population at both the county and state level decreased. In fact, since 2007 counties have also been allocated $300 million under AB 900 and an additional $200 million under AB 1628 towards renovation of county juvenile justice facilities. By the end of 2009 there were over 4,000 beds available in modern, state-of-the-art county juvenile halls, camps, and ranches statewide. Approximately half of those empty beds are in maximum security juvenile halls.
Nevertheless, it is understandable that counties are concerned about the prospect of juvenile justice realignment. Closing DJF would require counties to take on the responsibility for serious high-risk juvenile offenders; violent offenders, sex offenders, and gang members, and many suffering from severe mental health issues and extensive histories of exposure to trauma. DJF Safety and Welfare remedial expert, Barry Krisberg, cautions that counties will have to move away from the traditional institutional approach that has hampered the state for so long, and embrace best practices that require smaller living units, higher staff ratios, and emphasis on therapeutic services and re-entry.
Instead of spending $226 million per year into keeping DJF in operation, the Governor’s proposal, to close the front door on DJF beginning January 1, 2013 and transfer the money to the counties, including $10 million this year purely for planning and capacity building, is more fiscally and practically responsible. This is a much more efficient use of tax payer dollars, and a more effective approach to juvenile justice in California. However, counties will need time, funding, and support in order to adequately prepare for and begin to serve all of their juvenile offenders. It is time California stopped wasting its juvenile justice tax dollars and thoughtfully invested in long-term effective practices at the local level.