Effective juvenile justice: Eliminating the DJJ is a start

In 1942, San Quentin inmate Barney Lee benefitted from California’s new direction for youthful offenders. The 14-year old Barney had killed an abusive uncle in Monterey County and landed at the once notorious prison by the bay. Reformers sought separate facilities for juveniles such as Barney, thinking that through hard work training and educational pursuits, they could be rehabilitated. Activists questioned the practice of placing youth with hardened inmates inside California’s prisons.  The Youth Corrections Authority Act was adopted by the California Legislature in 1941. Barney became Youth Authority ward #00001 in 1942. He was taken from San Quentin and placed in the relative safety of a “Training School” in Whittier, later known as Fred C. Nelles School for Boys.

In the California Youth Authority (CYA), now the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the concept of ‘Parens Patraie’ essentially gave the state the role of the parent.  Wards of the CYA lived in cottages – barracks style and “counselors” wore street clothes. Academic studies and vocational training filled the days of the ward as he prepared to transition to life filled with a renewed sense of hope, back to the community.

The current DJJ is a shell of its former self, the lofty intentions of its original legislative mandate has veered so far off the beam that it is unrecognizable. Academic classrooms sit vacant for days on end. Vocational training programs have been shuttered, its machinery layered in dust. Lawsuits on behalf of wards and resultant consent decrees keep the DJJ in a constant state of flux; Staff members and wards alike are faced with an administration which is quixotic in its approach to mitigate present problems while spouting that they are feverishly working to fix concerns brought forth in the Farrell v. Cate lawsuit. The lawsuit, brought by a relative of a DJJ ward addresses education, treatment, mental health, and disciplinary issues. DJJ is mandated to fix the inadequacies pointed out in the litigation and resultant consent decree. There are benchmarks for progress; however, progress has been slow in coming with management having an elevated sense of progress which is not borne out by results.

The current cost for housing 1 ward in the DJJ is between $235,000 and $250,000 per year, depending on whom you talk to or which report you are reading. Suffice to say that the cost is at least $200,000 more per year than housing the same ward in an existing county facility.  

Until the mid 1980’s the emphasis continued to be on; Treatment, Training, and Rehabilitation – A Treatment Team approach ensured that each ward had a plan for remediation to include academics, vocational training, and counseling. Wards having specialized needs, such as, alcohol or substance abuse, deviant behavior, or gang association were addressed either on specialized treatment teams or in specialized classes.  On May 20, 1988, an automobile killed Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional facility Group Supervisor Les Macarro in the line of duty. Les was chasing a ward who had escaped during a hospital transport. On August 9, 1996 – Youth Counselor Ineasie Baker was stabbed and strangled to death at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. She was murdered in a supply closet and her body was placed in a dumpster. Her body was later found in a landfill in nearby Pomona after the dumpster was emptied into a trash truck. These deaths quickly caused a shift in focus within DJJ facilities from a Treatment modality to a more punitive environment. By the late 1980’s all DJJ ward activities deferred to the security needs or whims of the particular institution.

Within the past year both the Little Hoover Commission and the non-partisan, Legislative Analyst’s Office  have proposed eliminating the DJJ and transferring responsibility for the roughly 1600 remaining wards to county facilities.  There has been a pronounced expansion of county juvenile facilities over the past 10 years, providing an abundance of space for youthful offenders in facilities that are more secure than the present less secure DJJ facilities.

The former model of criminal youth rehabilitation in America has become a pitiably bloated, ineffective, relic of its former self. This failed experiment in youthful corrections costs California taxpayers over 375 million dollars per year.

Legislators and CDCR should immediately follow the recommendation of both the Little Hoover Commission and the Legislative Analyst’s Office.  A process to close down the DJJ over 5 years, transferring wards to county jurisdiction, and turning the DJJ facilities wholly over to CDCR for adult inmates should be prepared immediately.

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