Reform Progress and Setbacks

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With juvenile justice reforms and investigations going on around the country, it’s difficult to keep track of all the innovations, achievements and setbacks. We do, and below is a summary of some of the most important new developments.

Calif.: Prisons Close as Detention Drops

Reforms that spurred a rapid decline in the population of state-run youth prisons are now forcing some of those facilities out of business.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced last month that its facilities in Stockton and Paso Robles, both of which can hold more than 400 youth, will close in July.

By that time, the population of youth in CDCR prisons is expected to dip below 2,000, down from 2,500 last summer and 10,000 in 1995.

The eight-prison network was long chastised for its treatment of youth, and the state fought a lawsuit pushing for reform until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) settled the case early in his first term.

The plan to close the prisons was “top secret” until the announcement, said Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. It was hardly unpredictable though, considering legislation that forced the state’s 58 counties to keep all but the most violent offenders in county facilities.

“Nobody really wants to keep any of them around,” Macallair said of the facilities. “They’re all antiquated.”

Contact: CDCR (916) 324-6408,; CJCJ (415) 621-5661,

Texas: Isolation Up in Face of Reform

From the country’s most scandal-plagued juvenile justice agency comes the lesson that if you try to institute reforms without enough staff hiring and training, you get an overburdened staff doing things that contradict the reforms.

Some staff members at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) – where revelations last year led to indictments, firings and a sweeping overhaul overseen by a new leader – are putting more youth in isolation and not following proper procedures for doing it, according to the agency’s ombudsman.

Those staff members are sending more youths to solitary confinement for days or even weeks, not properly assessing whether they belong there, and not providing the education, health care and recreation that the agency requires, according to a 29-page memo from ombudsman Will Harrell to the TYC.

The memo, sent in November but made available last month, makes clear that one factor is overburdened staff. For example, it noted that “while one case worker’s case load ranged from five to 10 over the course of the prior year, it is now 18.”

It added that the increase in seclusions at one facility “has caused a considerable strain on security dorm staff. They do not have the ability to provide the required one-hour outdoor recreation or escort to school. For example, one youth had been locked down in security for about eight days when I met him, but has only been to school twice and allowed outdoor recreation once.”

The agency’s new conservator, Richard Nedelkoff, told the Houston Chronicle that he was concerned about the allegations but needed time to assess them.

N.Y.: Failure Spurs Overhaul

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) announced plans to reform the state’s juvenile justice system in the wake of reports documenting how poorly it worked and how much it cost.

“It really couldn’t work any worse or be more expensive,” says Meredith Wiley, who runs the New York office of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids in Albany.

Fight Crime’s report found that 75 percent of New York youths who enter the juvenile justice system are arrested again, with 42 percent of those youths returning because of violent felonies. The state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the juvenile justice facilities, puts the re-arrest rate at 80 percent.

Spitzer said he will shut six of the state’s low-security facilities – many of which run at half their capacity and are in areas where few detained juvenile offenders live – and will reduce another large residential center’s population by half.

Contact: OCFS (518) 473-7793,; Fight Crime (518) 465-5462,