Some years back, California had a huge number of juveniles in the state Department of Juvenile Justice. That number has been dramatically reduced, sending most of them to local facilities instead. But what do you do with the very worst?
Karen de Sa reports in the San Jose Mercury-News that in the Governor's original budget, he proposed closing the DJJ entirely. It is now wrong-sized for the number of wards it has, with a staggering cost of $200,000 each. Most of the usual suspects applauded, but persons of sense were horrified.
In the "May revise" of the budget, the governor has backed off.
Counties, already struggling with an influx of adult prisoners shifted to their watch under other state budget reforms, simply couldn't handle these most-difficult youths, they argued. Prosecutors warned that without state-run youth lockups, more juveniles would be sent to adult prisons.
"Often the ones going to DJJ are the most significant risk to public safety," said Karen Pank, executive director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.
But that decision to reverse course has left some lamenting the missed opportunity.
"Counties could do this better, even though it would take time and planning," said Sumayyah Waheed, who directs the Books Not Bars campaign for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "It was just a matter of having the courage to go for something better."
"Courage" and "something better" meaning, apparently, deciding it's okay to put the most violent thugs in county juvenile hall where they can prey upon kids who are in for far lesser delinquency? Or perhaps put them in the "big house"? Refreshingly, there are some people on the other side of the aisle who recognize the problem.
Surprisingly, the new plan is acceptable to some of the state's most ardent prison critics.
"Some say shut DJJ down, but it's just not clear to me where these youth would go," said attorney Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, which is monitoring a 2004 legal settlement over conditions of youth confinement. "It would be far better if there were small regionally run centers where kids could be close to their homes and families, but that doesn't seem to be in the stars."
Norman and others concede that counties are mostly unequipped to provide both the security and the intensive treatment that the most disturbed young offenders require.