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National leaders in youth justice reform

The nation has come along way in juvenile justice reform.  John Jay College in New York recently released a new report that details the various juvenile justice reform efforts undertaken by states in the last 30 years.  Three major strategies for reform are identified and evaluated in terms of the long-term effectiveness of each.  

The three main strategies they identify are resolution, meaning limiting judicial options for out-of-home placements by closing facilities; reinvestment whereby states incentivize state and county governments to reduce spending on incarceration and instead fund community-based programming; and realignment where both responsibility and funding shifts from state to county authority.   Each of the reform strategies share the overarching goal of reducing juvenile confinement in state facilities and enhancing community-based alternatives, yet the approach and the relative success has varied by state and by strategy.

After highlighting several states as standouts in their reform efforts, among them Michigan, Texas, New York, Ohio, Illinois, and California, the report concludes that the realignment strategy is in fact the most effective at achieving the long-term goals described above.  The report provides several reasons for why this may be so.  

First, realignment reform strategies are based on structural as well as fiscal changes.  As such, it requires more political effort to undo realignment reforms in subsequent years and in changing political climates.  

Secondly, the report concludes that with a realignment strategy, "fluctuations in crime rates are less likely to result in higher incarceration rates", because the responsibility for rehabilitation lies with the county rather than the state.   The onus is now on counties to locate the most cost-effective means for rehabilitation, rather than being able to shift youthful offenders back into the state system.  

Finally, the report finds that realignment strategies by definition use a combination of resolution and reinvestment strategies.  Therefore state juvenile correctional facilities are closed simultaneously with the realignment effort.   The author concludes:

"As long as state facilities remain open, counties will use them as placements for serious youth offenders. Closing state facilities leaves counties with no other option but to assume responsibility for all youth offenders."

The study examines California's experience with realignment reform strategies with the passage of Senate Bill 81 in 2007.  From the California experience, the study recommends caution and a thorough pre-planning and implementation process to avoid unintended consequences.  The authors found that, "counties had minimal time to develop community-based supervision and treatment programs before the state removed institutional placement options. Realigned counties also lacked assistance and state oversight, which are necessary to ensure that counties have support and are held financially accountable."  

Therefore, the study calls for stated to implement staggered, well-designed realignment processes where counties are incentivized for "developing community-based supervision and treatment options that enable juveniles to receive rehabilitation close to home."   In doing so, it concludes, counties will be more prepared to assume complete responsibility for adjudicated juveniles.

California decision makers would do well to heed the recommendations of this report.  California continues to spend over $170,000 per juvenile on the less than 1,000 remaining youth wards in the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF).  The facilities are in horrible condition, youth wards receive incomplete and inconsistent programming, and the recidivism rate for DJF persists at around 80%.  Steps taken by Governor Brown in the final 2012-13 budget are some helpful first steps but are far from sufficient.  California should undertake a staggered, well-designed realignment process for the remaining wards that incentivizes counties to develop adequate treatment options and creates strict standards for accountability and reporting.  There are valuable lessons to be learned from other states as well as from our own mixed policy history on serving youthful offenders.

Keywords: best practices, Brian Heller de Leon, fiscal policy, national

Posted in Blog, Realignment, Juvenile Justice

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