Brown wants to keep more youth in juvenile detention, not prison


From The Sacramento Bee

Criminal and juvenile justice reform has been a key part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s time in office, and his final proposed budget calls for keeping more youth offenders in juvenile detention facilities instead of prison.

Brown’s 2018-19 proposed budget calls for $3.8 million to allow youth offenders longer stays in juvenile justice facilities, a step the governor and some advocates say would lead to lower recidivism rates and better outcomes.

The proposal would:

▪ Allow youth sent to juvenile detention facilities to remain in Division of Juvenile Justice facilities until just before their 25th birthday. Currently, juvenile offenders can remain in DJJ housing until their 23rd birthday.

Allow juvenile offenders convicted in adult court but sent to DJJ facilities to spend their entire sentence in DJJ if they can complete their sentences before their 25th birthday, rather than their 21st birthday. Certain youth offenders who would not be able to complete their sentences by 25 would continue to be transferred to prison when they turn 18.

▪ Create a young adult offender pilot program that would allow the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to place 76 youth offenders with less serious offenses in two special juvenile detention facilities instead of prison.

Brown’s proposal is based on studies showing youth in juvenile detention facilities tend to fare better than youth placed in prison.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office has expressed some concerns over the cost-effectiveness of Brown’s proposal. In addition, some juvenile justice advocates say the state should shift away from juvenile detention facilities altogether.

The Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary will discuss Brown’s proposal during a hearing at 9:30 a.m. today in Room 113 of the Capitol.

Frankie Guzman, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s California Youth Justice Initiative, supports keeping youth offenders in DJJ facilities until 25 rather than sending them to prison. But, he said, community-based programs would be even more effective for young offenders with low-level convictions.

He speaks from experience, having spent about six years in a DJJ facility for crimes he committed at age 15.

“That (confinement) totally messed me up and made me worse,” Guzman said. “It took community-based services at a community college to help me turn my life around.”

California’s juvenile detention population declined steadily since the mid-1990s, when more than 10,000 youth were incarcerated in juvenile facilities. As of January, about 620 offenders were housed in the state’s four DJJ facilities. Most juvenile offenders in California today are sent to county facilities.

Youth charged with crimes before turning 18 appear in juvenile court. For more serious crimes – such as murder, robbery and certain sexual offenses – youth offenders may appear in adult court to be charged as adults.

Brown’s proposal would not be cheap, the LAO noted. Housing an offender in juvenile justice facilities costs about $80,000 each year versus $30,000 for housing an offender in prison.

The price would climb, too, from $3.8 million in the next budget to $9.2 million annually beginning in 2020. 

The LAO wrote that placing more youth in juvenile justice facilities can result in savings over time, as these youth offenders tend to spend less time in detention than youth in prison.

It recommends an independent evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of the program if it is enacted, citing studies that show “keeping a youth in treatment programs for a longer period of time than required on average does not appear to increase the effectiveness of the programs.”

Judges should have greater discretion during transfer hearings to allow youth to remain in DJJ until 25 in cases where not doing so would force the youth to be transferred to prison, the LAO recommends.

According to a CDCR report released last year, 74.2 percent of youth released from a DJJ facility in 2011-12 were re-arrested within three years, and 53.8 percent were convicted of a new crime. The report also showed DJJ inmates had lower recidivism rates than youth prison inmates.

Still, Guzman said DJJ facilities are not the best treatment setting for young offenders.

“Removing kids from homes and placing them in cages in facilities causes more trauma,” Guzman said.