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California Senate hears arguments for juvenile justice realignment

On Thursday, the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety heard testimony on Governor Brown's proposal to close California's remaining youth correctional facilities  and shift supervision of the remaining 985 youth to the county-level.  Strong public testimony was offered by the Department of Finance, the Legislative Analysts Office, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), and the Commonweal Foundation arguing for complete juvenile realignment from a variety of angles.  

Dan Macallair, Executive Director of CJCJ, argued that the state can no longer afford to maintain dual systems for youthful offenders, especially with costs estimated at $1 million per cell to replace the three remaining decrepit DJF facilities in Stockton and Ventura.  He pointed out that many counties are already serving high-need youth offenders with a wide array of secure facilities and community-based services at their disposal for youth rehabilitation.  

David Steinhart, Juvenile Justice Program Director at Commonweal, presented ideas for staggered options for full juvenile realignment.  He mentioned the "buy-back and opt-in" idea that was discussed in negotiations last year where counties receive a certain level of funding per youth ward, but can then purchase bed space at DJF if they desire.

The hearing also provided a chance for several law enforcement associations to restate their opposition to DJF closure, including the prison guards union (CCPOA), the district attorneys association (CDAA), and the chief probation officers association (CPOC).  Linda Penner, Chief Probation Officer of Fresno County was adamant that counties are "not ready yet" for full juvenile realignment, although she recognized that counties had successfully absorbed 75% of the previous youth population that was previously confined to DJF.

Senator Loni Hancock (Alameda), who chaired the meeting, asked Chief Penner why counties who serve more 707b youth offenders locally continue to pay the tax burden for those counties who are overusing DJF relative to their felony arrest rates . Dan Macallair described this as counties getting a "free pass" and that there were very few disincentives from counties overusing DJF as a matter of convenience rather than necessity.

The highlight of the hearing came from two very personal testimonies, one from the aunt of a young man previously incarcerated in DJF, and the other from a youth who has already spent seven years in the notorious Ventura Youth Correctional Facility.  Both described stories of horrific treatment including guards who pepper spray the same youth 4 to 5 times per day, youth trying to commit suicide by swallowing batteries or cutting themselves, lack of mental health treatment, and facilities with overflowing toilets.  The youth in the Ventura facility wanted to make sure that the Senators heard loud and clear that "WE DO EXIST" and that their attempts to change conditions and treatment have largely been disregarded by staff.  

The room fell silent as these testimonies were given.  The overwhelming message during the hearing was that the state cannot continue to invest taxpayer dollars in an abusive and decrepit system.   The path forward on juvenile realignment continues to be, not if these youth prisons should be closed, but rather when and how.  There are many challenges still to face with complete juvenile realignment, but the status quo is clearly not acceptable to legislators, the Governor's office, and California's broader public.

Keywords: Brian Heller de Leon, DJF/DJJ, interest groups, youth

Posted in Blog, Realignment, Political Landscape

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