Op-Eds


California's youth prisons nearing an end

By Barry Krisberg, San Francisco Chronicle

In January 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown announced his plan to shut down all state youth prisons by 2014. If backed by the Legislature, the governor's proposal would have counties share $10 million to develop prudent local alternatives to state custodial facilities. By January 2013, the Division of Juvenile Justice will no longer accept any new admissions, and the entire system will gradually phase out in 2014.

There is significant opposition to this proposal from many youth advocates, probation chiefs, judges and district attorneys. Some are concerned that the counties do not have the programs and resources to manage the current DJJ population, that the youth facility closure will lead to more youth being sentenced to adult prisons and jails, and that there will be wide disparities in treatment and confinement conditions across the diverse counties of the Golden State.

It is imperative that we understand the characteristics of the youth that  are now being sent to DJJ. The DJJ population has declined by almost 90 percent since 2004, and legislation such as SB81 requires that virtually all nonviolent, non sex offenders are managed by the counties. Thus the current DJJ youth are almost all violent offenders and serious sex offenders. They are generally older than the youngsters managed by county probation programs. DJJ youth have very high rates of mental health challenges and they have often spent considerable time in county juvenile halls and ranches. Some of these young people have already done time in adult jails and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities. A large proportion of the DJJ youth are gang members. Many of these troubled young people have extensive histories of physical abuse and exposure to trauma.

What will the counties need to succeed if the governor's mission for them goes into effect?

The right housing options: Counties need to budget for very small living units (no more than eight to 10 youth in a living unit) and more enriched staffing ratios. The counties must assess whether their facilities have sufficient and appropriate space for education and treatment services. There must be adequate attention to supporting programs that will keep these youth busy and engaged in positive activities for most of their waking hours; recall the old adage that "idleness is the devil's workshop."

Staff trained to emphasize incentives, not punishments: Because these youth have histories of severe trauma, counties will need to expand and enrich the mental health staff available to work with youth in their facilities. All staff, including teachers and living unit personnel, need intensive training on conflict resolution techniques and methods of behavior management that do not rely on the routine use of force and isolation. Staff need to be trained in techniques that emphasize positive reinforcement and incentives, not just punishments. Probation departments need guidance on how to leverage the support of parents and families to make facilities safer.

One of the best-researched models for violent juvenile offenders is the Capital Offender Program of the Texas Youth Commission. This program incorporates intensive therapeutic counseling with carefully orchestrated re-entry planning and programming. In Florida, the Associated Marine Institutes runs a very successful program in the Everglades that involves serious and violent juveniles in ecological reclamation work. Other programs in Maryland, Colorado and Rhode Island have mobilized positive peer groups to make their facilities less violent.

Programs that eliminate prison-like conditions: Many believe that the Missouri Division of Youth Services runs the best juvenile corrections program in the nation. Humanizing the conditions of confinement and the manner in which staff communicate with youth makes a difference. Thus, the Missouri program has eliminated the prison-like conditions that are reflected in most department of juvenile justice and county facilities. Youth in Missouri are permitted to dress like normal adolescents, not like prison inmates. In Missouri, their rooms look like those in a college dorm. In Missouri, the program treats the youth like normal adolescents.

In California, the state is moving away from treating the DJJ youth as if they are irredeemable and is trying to increase counseling and treatment programs. Yet most of the youth still exercise in cages and their rooms are prison cells with open toilets in the middle. Many county facilities also are designed to have the look and feel of prisons.

Santa Clara County has begun implementing the Missouri approach in its county ranch program. The results have been very positive in terms of reduced institutional violence and better post-release outcomes. The state and the counties should embrace the core principles of the Missouri program and adapt these to our state and communities.

California's youth prisons

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed shutting down the state's three remaining facilities by 2014.

Number of wards in 1996: 10,166

Number of wards today: About 1,094

Cost to house one ward: $175,000 a year

Who they are: Primarily violent offenders and serious sex offenders. Of the 500 youth committed last year, 60 percent were committed by the juvenile court

40 percent were convicted in criminal courts but were being held in DJJ until they turn 18 years old.
2/1/2012