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Last week, Governor Brown released his budget for fiscal year 2018 – 19, which proposes a 1 percent increase in spending across adult prisons and the state’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Notably, the budget pledges $3.8 million for a new young adult pilot program at DJJ, which would prop up the failing system and extend its harms to a new population of young people. Despite substantial state investment in local alternatives to DJJ, including more than $260 million allocated annually through the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act and the Youth Offender Block Grant, the Department of Finance predicts that spending per youth at DJJ will reach $318,000 in fiscal year 2017 – 18, an amount that far outpaces the cost of secure, county-run youth facilities or other local alternatives. State leadership must reject this proposed expansion of the youth prison system and reinvest in community alternatives.

The budget’s DJJ proposals follow decades of decline in the population of the institutions resulting from reforms and massive reductions in youth crime. In October 2017, the facilities held just 627 youth, or 6 percent of their 1996 levels, and the budget predicts an average of just 615 youth in the 2017 – 18 fiscal year. Following the November 2016 passage of Proposition 57, the California Department of Finance predicted an increase in the population of DJJ due to reductions in the number of youth facing adult court prosecution. However, DJJ saw further reductions in population in the year following Prop 57, paving the way for a phased closure of the facilities.

However, in his final budget proposal, Governor Brown has missed an opportunity to bring a decisive end to the troubled DJJ institutions, instead, putting forward a proposal that would extend the well-documented harms of the facilities to a new young adult population. Specifically, the budget proposes an increase in the age of jurisdiction for DJJ from 23 to 25 and the establishment of a Young Adult Offender Pilot Program,” which would place young people – presumably those facing short adult court sentences – in two vacant DJJ units.

By raising the age of jurisdiction, Governor Brown would reverse a decision made in the 2012 – 13 budget cycle to lower the maximum age of youth confined in the facilities. In the years following this reform, the average length of stay at DJJ declined modestly, suggesting that a reversal of the reform could lengthen the period youth spend at the facilities, including those committed by juvenile courts. 

While increasing the age limits of DJJ has the potential to influence judges’ decisions during transfer proceedings, it is not clear that the share of youth transferred to adult court will necessarily decline as a result. In fact, when the age of jurisdiction was lowered in fiscal year 2012 – 13, the percentage of judicial transfer hearings that resulted in adult court prosecution declined. In the three years preceding the reform (20092011), an average of 75 percent of hearings resulted in a transfer to adult court, compared to 62 percent in the three years following (20132015).

Extending the age of jurisdiction has also made it possible for the Governor to recommend a new young adult pilot for DJJ that would target young people who can, presumably, complete their sentences before age 25. This proposal is reminiscent of the failed California Leadership Academy proposal, which was an ill-conceived attempt to redesign the youth correctional model. Our strong opposition to the California Leadership Academy was rooted in the understanding that large, remote, prison-like facilities, regardless of cosmetic improvements, fail to rehabilitate and cannot keep young people safe. This year’s proposed pilot would pave the way for the transformation of DJJ into a larger young adult prison system where those with minor offenses and shorter sentences could be warehoused.

California’s state youth correctional system consists of large and aging facilities, beset with violence and built to hold three times their current population. Our state dollars would be better spent developing community- and county-led alternatives to both DJJ and state prison. Rather than commit to years of investment in a failed model that defies best practices, California leaders must seize this opportunity to reject the proposed expansion of DJJ and invest in solutions that reduce reliance on state incarceration for all.

Related Links:

Young Adult Prisons Are Not the Answer

California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Reports High Recidivism Despite Surging Costs

Failure After Farrell: Violence and Inadequate Mental Health Care in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice