As report earlier on this blog, California Gov. Jerry Brown had planned to close California’s crumbling youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The system is overcrowded, dilapidated, unsafe and accused of abusing its youthful wards. However, counties screamed bloody murder at the thought of having to take on the few violent offenders who would remain incarcerated (and the Chief Probation Officers of California screamed bloody murder at the thought of losing their jobs). So Brown backed down, offering counties the option of sending their wards back to DJJ.
Under the plan, California’s counties would split a $242 million grant from the state for dealing with youth offenders and the counties could use their share to pay the state back to house them at a cost of $200,000 per ward. Housing them at the county level costs between $25,000 and $90,000 per year. Keep in mind that California spends less than $7,000 per year on each child in public school. In all likelihood, what will actually happen is that large numbers of nonviolent youth offenders will trickle back into the school system, many very far behind in their school readiness, thus further stressing schools’ ability to serve the needs of their students. Those who are deemed too dangerous to release, will probably remain in county lock up, at a huge savings for the counties.
The DJJ population has shrunk to 1,300 inmates, from 10,000 in 1996. Closing DJJ and having counties take up the slack makes sense, particularly considering that DJJ was, by most accounts, broken beyond repair and under obligation of a lawsuit to fix its abusive conditions. However, the Probation Officers of California opposed this plan and lobbied heavily against it, saying that would be a threat to public safety. However, leaving the kids locked up in DJJ is a threat to their safety. San Francisco stopped sending youth to DJJ in 2004 because of allegations of abuse, despite the fact that it had more youth offenders per capita than any other county in the state. If SF can do it, then why not the rest of the state? Of course SF youth authority has had its own examples of abuse.
Perhaps a better approach to youth crime would be to invest in schools, families, after school programs, youth jobs and communities organizations, and reduce the causes of youth crime, rather than spending ten times that much per child to lock them up in unsafe and abusive prisons.