Juvenile Justice Cut Would be a Mistake

One of Governor Brown’s budget trigger cuts for California is the $72 million spent on the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ, formerly the California Youth Authority). The governor is proposing to shut down the state juvenile justice detention system and send the youth back to the counties for rehabilitation. On the surface, this seems like a good move—DJJ has a horrible reputation for punishing wards and providing little rehabilitative services.

Santa Clara County is well positioned to take back the14 youth they currently have in the state facility. Its two juvenile ranches are under capacity, and one could easily be converted to a higher-level program with additional funding. Other counties are less equipped to take people back. These counties do not have ranch programs and their juvenile halls are short-term holding facilities, not treatment programs. Also, many rural counties don’t have separate juvenile facilities and kids are held in a separate part of an adult jail—not a very good alternative. 

Some juvenile justice officials in the Bay Area have been discussing a regional center for youth returning from DJJ. Most of the Bay Area youth returning from DJJ are between 18 and 25 and need a specialized program; however, counties like Santa Clara, who have an available ranch facility, are reluctant to bring in more serious offenders from outside the county. If DJJ forces counties to take back youth without the necessary funding, many youth advocates fear that district attorneys will begin “charging up” these juvenile offenders and try them in adult court.  These youth would then stay in juvenile hall until they turned 18 and then be transferred to adult jail. This means no rehabilitation services, just a holding pattern.

We must do better for our most troubled youthful offenders. Local jurisdictions are willing to take back the DJJ wards if they have the funding to provide the needed services and supervision. Each ward is now costing in excess of $200,000 per year to be housed in DJJ. Start with the $125,000 the state was charging the local counties for each ward and give it back to them. Let communities pool their resources to develop regional options if that is more cost-effective, especially in rural areas. Make sure communities adopt best practices and evidence-based services and don’t just build new jails for warehousing these young felons. 

Aside from the human value of moving youth from a life of crime to lifelong success, there is an economic value. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, one year in a California adult prison costs $47,102. For a youth who becomes an unrehabilitated adult, you can multiply this indefinitely.

Research shows that these youth can be rehabilitated. Santa Clara County should be the first to develop a new program for their DJJ wards. With the juvenile hall and ranch population at an all-time low, we have an opportunity to step up and create a new facility for our most violent and troubled youth.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

One Comment

  1. Sparky,
    You went to some not negligible degree of effort to contribute to this forum and it seems somehow discourteous that your thoughtful remarks have heretofore gone uncommented upon. And so without further ado….

    These ideas of yours seem reasonable enough. I’m sure they couldn’t hurt.
    But wouldn’t it be great if we had the funding to build and operate these troubled youth rehabilitation programs in the manner that you, as a professional, know is needed in order to effectively serve misguided American youngsters who have begun to stray from the fold? It must make you so angry each time your facilities are imposed on by a person who is in the country illegally, resulting in a portion of those precious funds being diverted from the purpose for which they were intended. As a careful steward of our tax dollars you probably mutter oaths condemning the negligence of those public officials who actively thwart the enforcement of our immigration laws, make public services available to illegals, and ultimately make your already tough job nigh on impossible.
    Well take heart, Ms. Harlan. Know that you have many allies in your fight against illegal immigration. We know, as you do, just how vital it is that every American youngster be given the opportunity to succeed and we are doing everything possible to give you the resources to make that happen.
    No no. Don’t mention it. No thanks are necessary. Just the looks on those kids faces when they finally get the undivided attention they deserve is all the thanks we need.
    Good luck Ms. Harlan, and keep up the good work.

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