A Seismic Shift Stirs California

California, home of one of the country’s most notorious juvenile justice systems, is about to test what happens when reformers get what they want.

Namely, if a state sends adjudicated youths and a load of money back to the counties, will the counties create progressive juvenile justice programs, or just lock up more kids?

Senate Bill 81 (SB 81), signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in late August, will force counties to accept responsibility for managing virtually all of their juvenile offenders. Because of California’s size, this is probably the largest shift ever in juvenile jurisdiction.

That alone is a big win, reform advocates say, because moving youths from state to county facilities will keep most of them closer to home. But instead of having one juvenile justice agency to watch, advocates must now apply a balance of pressure and assistance to 58 county systems. Some see counties as eager to make positive changes; others are skeptical.

“Certainly it’s a good thing that in California, people recognized that [the state juvenile justice system] sucks,” said Bart Lubow, who oversees the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). But “I don’t expect that a lot of counties are going to be wildly innovative. Nothing has been done to engage them in analyses” of possible strategies to handle the influx of adjudicated youth.

The Reform

In typical fashion, the overhaul stems from lawsuits. The California Youth Authority, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), was hit with several class action suits in the early 2000s, and after Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, his administration quickly settled the most recent case (Farrell v. Hickman). DJJ entered into a consent decree, agreeing to completely overhaul the state juvenile justice system.

Predictably, the state first tried shortcuts, says Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). “They said, ‘We’ll fix the current system, throw additional money in and add a couple programs.’ ”

But two things gradually became evident. First, it was difficult to change a system where kids were held in large buildings that did not meet national standards, with guards much better versed in corrections than rehabilitation. Second, the cost to bring the facilities and services up to the standards in the consent decree would be outrageous: in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $280,000 per youth per year.

“The catalyst [for change] in the end was cost,” says David Steinhart, who heads the juvenile justice program at Commonweal, based in San Francisco, and served on the commission that worked with the governor, legislature and county associations to create a politically viable plan.

So SB 81 was created. It mandates that counties handle all juvenile offenders, with the exception of serious violent offenders. The state will pay counties $117,000 per youth annually – which some advocates believe is enough to create progressive systems that minimize detention and focus on community-based alternatives.

The law took effect in September. As for youth already in the state system, counties can take them back or let them finish their sentences with the state.

The law will also continue an astonishing decline in juvenile commitments to state facilities, which has been attributed to fewer juvenile arrests, bad publicity about the state facilities, and counties holding more adjudicated youth in their local facilities rather than paying the fees charged by the state to take them.

Some 10,000 youth were locked up at CYA training schools in 1995. Steinhart estimates that by the second year under SB 81, the DJJ’s committed juvenile population of 2,500 will decrease to 1,500, Steinhart estimates.

Work Ahead

Reformers take as a given that giving the counties a larger role will improve juvenile justice services. “The state was running an abysmal and substandard system,” Steinhart says. “They can hardly do any worse.”

Ziedenberg: Will counties spend the money on beds or community services?

The issue now is, “Will counties spend their money on beds, or … make a decision to manage most kids in the community?” says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.

Some counties already have juvenile detention centers, and some (such as San Francisco) had all but ceased sending juvenile offenders to the state. But others, such as Monterey County, which is near the Bay Area, sent virtually all offenders to the state training schools.

“The majority of counties are not in any position to deal” with the number of youth they will now have to keep in their own juvenile justice systems, Macallair says.

Steinhart notes that among the 58 counties, “28 have no local commitment facilities right now.” Maybe that gets them started on the right foot. He is “cautiously optimistic” that counties will avoid simply adding beds.

Lubow is less certain. “I’m not sure all pieces of the puzzle have been laid out” for counties, he says. “If you give money to a county that already over-incarcerates, then that’s what they’ll do.”

The Casey Foundation’s JDAI approach has helped more than a dozen state and county systems lower the number of juveniles committed to long-term facilities, largely by decreasing the number of youth entering detention centers to await court dates. Three California counties are in the JDAI, but Lubow hasn’t heard from any more since the law was passed.

“We are prepared and would love to work with a new cohort of California counties, or in collaboration with the state to strengthen capacity of all the counties,” Lubow says. “But really, the ball is in California’s court. We don’t peddle this. We learned through painful experience that it can’t be forced on a jurisdiction.”

Some efforts are underway to help the counties. Steinhart’s program at Commonweal and Macallair’s CJCJ are partnering with two other nonprofits to seek private funding for a training program, with an emphasis on re-entry and supervision. The newly formed Juvenile Justice Commission will produce a toolkit that identifies best practices, as well as common assessment and measurement protocols for the counties.

SB 81 originally included $15 million in planning grants, but that money was eliminated at the last minute. What remains is $100 million in construction bond funds; there is no mandate that the money be used for residential facilities.

Contacts: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (415) 621-5661, http://www.cjcj.org; Commonweal (415) 868-0970, http://www.commonweal.org.


Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.


Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.


We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)

Recent Comments




Kennesaw State University Mountain Logo & Ceneter for Sustainable Journalism Logo
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape

Copyright © 2018 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Blvd. Suite 310, Kennesaw GA 30144

To Top