A Layman’s Guide to California’s Juvenile Justice Saga

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Newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will work with the California legislature this year to implement reforms of state operations aimed at closing the state’s well-chronicled budget shortfall. Among Brown’s first round of proposals: a drastic downsizing of the state’s role in the juvenile justice system.

Because California has about twice as many detained or committed juveniles as runner-up Texas, and other states are likely mulling the prospect of pushing more responsibility to counties and cities, what the state accomplishes will be instructive for them, too.

To help follow the California changes, this is background information on the current California juvenile justice system and proposals for its future.

The timeline

In the 1960s, (when Brown’s father was governor) California’s network of state juvenile justice facilities was considered a standard-bearer for the nation. By the turn of the millennium, it was bad enough that the Department of Juvenile Justice (then the California Youth Authority) was on the defensive end of a class-action lawsuit.

In 2003, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) settled the case and entered into a consent decree that required the state to overhaul its facilities completely. It was soon evident that such an overhaul would carry an astronomical price tag.

Part of the solution came in 2007, when the legislature passed a reform bill that drastically reduced the number of youths that a county could send to be housed in a state facility. The law requires counties to handle all juveniles with the exception of those adjudicated for serious violent offenses. Youths who have been convicted in adult court can also be housed at state juvenile facilities until they turn 18.

Since the bill passed, the state has closed five of the 11 facilities that existed just six years ago and the number of youths in DJJ facilities continues to plummet. 

But the high cost of keeping the remaining facilities open, with far fewer offenders to accommodate, has placed what remains of the DJJ operation in the crosshairs during California’s continuing budget battle. Brown proposed getting the state out of the juvenile confinement business, and transforming DJJ into an agency that simply allocates state funds to counties for housing juvenile offenders and monitoring their operations.   

Who is in DJJ facilities?

There are a lot fewer juveniles with DJJ than there used to be. There are 1,118 juveniles in DJJ because of a juvenile court placement, and another 214 who were convicted in criminal court and are with DJJ until they can be transferred to adult lockup at age 18. Ten years ago, the total population was about 10,000.

Most are not convicted murderers. There are 126 homicide convicts with DJJ. Most of the wards, 947, are in for robbery or assault.

Almost all are males. At the outset of 2011, there were 53 juvenile females locked up with the state.

Most are Hispanic: Hispanics make up the vast majority of wards in DJJ facilities; 761 to be exact. That’s 100 more than three times the number of black and white wards combined.  

A number of counties in the central valley “send, frankly, their Hispanic kids” to DJJ, said Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “That’s the dynamic that exists in a lot of these counties. Nobody says it like that, but that’s the flavor of it.”

Most are NOT juveniles: Of the 1,118 wards that are there because of a juvenile adjudication, 75 percent are 18 or older. Just under 250 of them are 21 or older.

California allows DJJ to keep in custody juveniles charged with certain crimes until age 21 and others until 25. The average age of juvenile offenders at DJJ is 19.4 years, and the average age of the DJJ wards that will transfer to adult corrections is 17.7 years.

Where do various groups stand on DJJ?

Lobbying groups for probation officers, corrections officers and district attorneys in the state opposed the concept of a full DJJ shutdown, forcing Brown to propose a compromise version of realignment last week (more on that below).

The advocacy community in California is divided on the issue. For some, such as the Ella Baker Center on Human Rights and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, it seems, any value from a strong state agency is not worth the continued existence of the state facilities.

Other California advocates such as University of California law professor Barry Krisberg and juvenile justice reformer David Steinhart, worry that a shutdown of DJJ could cause an increase in the number of juveniles transferred to adult court, and favor downsizing DJJ instead of its complete elimination. 

The potential for a ‘transfer trend’

All but 16 of California’s 58 counties have at least one juvenile at a DJJ facility, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but the majority are from just a few counties. Together, Los Angeles County and Kern County (Bakersfield) account for more than a third of the youths who entered DJJ from juvenile court. They and five other counties (Fresno, San Diego, Alameda, Orange and Sacramento) make up more than 60 percent of the DJJ wards committed by juvenile courts.

Since 2007, counties have had the authority to hold juveniles in local facilities until they are 21 (before that, it was 19). So in theory, all but 250 of the current DJJ youths could be held in county juvenile facilities right now. But an official from San Bernardino County, which continues to place juveniles with DJJ, said keeping juveniles until 21 “rarely, rarely happens” in its county-run facilities.

The question for such counties becomes: Do we keep adjudicating these juveniles in juvenile court, potentially increasing the number of wards who will be with the county until age 21? Or do we transfer the ones we can by statute to adult court? Under any compromise plan, the counties  will receive some funding from the state to house the older offenders, though how much money has not been determined.

The question of where these older juveniles will be prosecuted is the main concern that makes some longtime critics of conditions at DJJ buildings hesitant to support a full shutdown. If the DJJ option is the only thing keeping certain counties from transferring juveniles to criminal court, a shutdown could spark a quick and significant uptick in the number of juveniles being transferred. 

Sending more older juveniles into criminal court would be easy to accomplish.  In 2000, through a ballet initiative called Proposition 21, voters gave prosecutors the authority to file criminal (adult) charges directly against juveniles who have two prior adjudications and have committed certain felony offenses [All the scenarios in which a prosecutor can direct file are listed here in subsection (d)(3)].

Based on DJJ populations and capacity estimates at county facilities, it appears that Fresno and Sacramento counties will have the hardest time fitting all their wards into existing beds if the state shuts down juvenile justice operations. A projection from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has Sacramento over capacity by a few juveniles if DJJ were to close, and Fresno would be over capacity by 17.

By comparison, the four large counties that place the most juveniles with DJJ - Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda and Orange – have more than enough open beds to accommodate all of their DJJ wards. Each projects having more than 100 available beds; Los Angeles has about 868 available beds in-county and 315 juveniles with DJJ. Having said that…

County capacity is murky

CJCJ’s capacity projections are helpful in dispelling the notion that California county facilities are filled to the brim with offenders already, and that somehow DJJ closure would lead to an excess of 1,300.

But CJCJ’s capacity figures, explains Director of Development Kate McCracken, include facilities that handle “youth awaiting placement, youth committed to a juvenile hall stay, [and] youth waiting for a hearing.”

So while Los Angeles has hundreds of beds available, it is not clear how many of those are in facilities in which county officials might feel comfortable  placing  a juvenile who was locked up for a violent offense, or a juvenile who will be transferred to the adult system at 18. 

A hybrid plan is in play…for now

As mentioned, last week Brown scrapped his initial plan to completely shut down DJJ . The new proposal:

*Counties would get an allocation of funds to deal with the class of juveniles that previously could have gone to DJJ.

* The counties can use the money either to adjust their own systems, or they can pay $200,000 per juvenile, per year, to the state for every youth that the county sends to DJJ. 

The idea is to create a middle ground where counties could place juveniles with the state, but it would be at an enormous premium, since it is certainly possible to house a juvenile in county for less than $200,000 a year. Presumably, the state would shut down more facilities, leaving just one or two in operation. 

A potential pitfall of this alternative proposal is that if the state keeps open even one facility, it may still remain responsible for complying with the consent decree that Schwarzenegger approved. DJJ would still need to renovate any existing facilities, and improve its programming sufficiently to keep the court monitor happy. The costs involved in this, said CJCJ’s Macallair,  could negate the whole cost-saving motivation for the state.

Other ideas have been suggested. Click here for a rundown of those ideas by David Steinhart, a juvenile justice reformer for California nonprofit Commonweal.