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California and juvenile justice realignment: Solid ideas, shaky execution

While Texas and Missouri continue to make steady, substantial steps towards juvenile justice realignment (as mentioned recently by CJCJ), California seems mired in a state of indecision.  Though acknowledging the need for wholesale reform, the state lacks the political commitment to implement the policy changes necessary to accomplish it.  In 2011-2012, Governor Brown proposed full-scale juvenile justice realignment with support from the Little Hoover Commission, the Legislative Analysts Office, CJCJ, and other reform advocates.  This plan, however, was later withdrawn and replaced with less substantial, incremental measures.

Why then--facing judicial mandates to improve conditions in the state's youth correctional facilities and sustained fiscal and budgetary pressure--is California hesitant to progress with comprehensive reform and realignment efforts?

One key factor to consider is sustained opposition from law enforcement stakeholders.  Three organizations in particular--The California State Association of Counties (CSAC), the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), and the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC)--expressed strong public criticisms of Governor Brown's January 2012 proposal.

Their efforts, combined with politicians' desires to gain endorsements from law enforcement and avoid being seen as tough on crime, create an environment where legislators are often inherently wary of and resistant to juvenile and criminal justice reform.  In a previous CJCJ publication, law enforcement lobbyist John Lovell put it plainly:

"A politician, by his very nature, is involved in an advertising campaign."  Another lobbyist says of politicians, "...they're the product.  Every politician wants the good housekeeping seal of approval.  For a politician to claim 'I'm the choice of law enforcement,' that's very attractive."

Notwithstanding political challenges, California reform advocates have increasingly powerful examples of success elsewhere to support their arguments.  Texas, for example, has achieved significant savings by closing Texas Youth Commission (TYC) facilities and shifting focus toward community corrections and alternate sentencing.  Preliminary reports show that youth diverted from TYC and served by community-based programs have low rates of subsequent commitment to TYC facilities.

There is also growing evidence that despite past opposition, 'establishment' law enforcement organizations are finally beginning to accept the idea of juvenile justice realignment as necessary.  For example, while still expressing concern for potential staffing cuts related to realignment, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has recently supported sentencing reform efforts aimed at reducing the total number of juvenile commitments to state facilities.  While such shifts in favor of reform have thus far been incremental, they are nonetheless significant.

Whether driven by dedication to advocacy favoring reform or a purely pragmatic realization that reform is inevitable and already under way, it is difficult to deny that full juvenile justice realignment in California has become a fiscal imperative.  Consequently, CJCJ supports realignment focusing on community-based service provision, with the state overseeing rehabilitative services provided at the county level.  The good news is that funding and building related infrastructure to support such efforts is both possible and realistic.  The challenge now is for stakeholders of various interests to join forces and do what is necessary to create an effective and efficient system in California, promoting both positive youth outcomes and long-term public safety.

~ S. Patrick Wynne
CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: best practices, community corrections, state policy, Texas, youth

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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