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Construction funding, totaling $80 million, will soon be available to California’s counties for building or renovating their local juvenile justice facilities. These facilities typically run for extended life spans. New projects should therefore assimilate best practice research and innovative strategies in order to long-serve juvenile rehabilitative needs.

Senate Bill (SB) 81, commonly known as juvenile justice realignment’, channels youth who commit less serious and less violent offenses away from the state Division of Juvenile Facilities to county authorities. SB 81 also provides funding for the construction or enhancement of local youth offender rehabilitative facilities and non-residential, non-secure facilities. The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) oversees SB 81 funding, and approved all 14 applications received in the 2008 round of funding. The BSCC has created an Executive Steering Committee (ESC), which is currently drafting the Request for Proposals (RFP) that will shape applications for the $80 million currently available. In 2008, the majority of counties sought to add beds and replace or improve existing facilities. This time, the competitive process for less money should reflect the decline inyouth crimeand confinement by emphasizing best rehabilitative practice, new directions, and alternative facilities.

Juvenile detention facilities are not beholden to high rehabilitative standards. The American Correctional Association offers a voluntary accreditation program, in which standards regarding recreation, programming, visitation, and education are expected, rather than mandatory, conventions. Fortunately, best practice has been extensively researched and is increasingly demonstrated.

Successful rehabilitation and best practice are inextricably linked, as demonstrated in Santa Clara County’s Enhanced Ranch Program. The William F. James Boys Ranch adopted elements from the renowned Missouri Model, such as low staff-to-youth ratios, extensive aftercare, and creating a family atmosphere. Youths demonstrated a 21% drop in recidivism in the year following release, compared to a pre-enhancement cohort.

Further examples of best practice include small-group living and program arrangements, fostering a community-style normalized environment, and utilizing factors such as non-institutional furnishings and bathroom privacy. Best practices also recognize the importance of therapeutic recreation, including a range of physical and leisure activities, a professionally staffed library, and visitation centers promoting longer and wider family visits. Furthermore, programming must consider gender-specific needs for girls, and should include positively reinforced behavior management, educational and vocational opportunities, alcohol and drug treatment, and parenting skills. These practices should become the new minimum standards.

Innovative methods to facilitate community reentry include community-developed programs, such as training guide dogs, or caring for animals in shelters, and preparing youth for diverse occupations and qualifications. Such methods can also include wider programming, such as for parents of detained youth.

Finally, the SB81 funding allows for the construction of non-secure, non-residential facilities. For example, in the first round, Santa Cruz County successfully proposed a recreational and programming space to be shared between detained youth and those under supervision in the community. Innovative facilities can both foster important relationships for post-release support and meet broader community needs. 

Juvenile facilities conceived now will determine dispositional and rehabilitative options for years to come. Counties currently seeking funding have both immense responsibility to ensure continued best practices, and the valuable opportunity to build bridges between justice-involved youth and the communities to which they will return.