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California’s juvenile justice system is multi-layered and highly diverse. It encompasses the state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), and local programming and rehabilitation by California’s 58 counties. Each county is unique, given their available resources and distinct policies and practices. Plus, county approaches vary with the priorities of local juvenile justice administrators and policymakers. That said, California counties have increasingly served as incubators for model policy innovation. State policymakers must nurture this bottom-up reform to ensure a balanced approach that benefits our justice-involved youth and promotes public safety.

DJF continues to face deep systemic challenges, which CJCJ has previously analyzed in great detail. The physical facilities are in disrepair and require exorbitant capital investment for upkeep. Moreover, DJF has yet to achieve a therapeutic design within their custodial facilities. California cannot rely solely on DJF to meet the considerable demands of the state’s high-needs youth.

Many of California’s 58 county have assumed greater responsibility for their DJF-eligible youth. As of December 2012, the DJF youth population dipped below 800. Monthly new DJF admissions have declined precipitously. There were 60% fewer commitments in the 2nd half of 2012, as compared to the respective period in 2010. The state has benefited from this reduction in cost savings, with fiscal savings amounting to approximately $75 million in the previous two years. Yet these funds have not benefited the responsible counties’ best practices and instead have been used to reduce the state budget deficit.

Given this situation, Assemblymember Reginald Reggie” Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles’ 59th District has recently introduced a legislative proposal that empowers counties to better locally serve their DJF-eligible youth. The bill preserves choice for those jurisdictions that continue to use DJF and does not cost the state additional money. Instead, the proposal offers counties additional resources for administering best practices to benefit youth who might otherwise go to DJF. The state remains a necessary partner, tasked with oversight, throughout this process.

Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer’s proposal builds from the success of two landmark state policies. Senate Bill 81, passed in 2007, mandated that counties assume responsibility for non-violent youth offenders making them ineligible for DJF. Given this requirement, the state created a formula block grant to develop local capacity necessary to meet their new responsibility. Senate Bill 678, passed in 2009, rewarded county probation departments that lowered their adult felony probation revocations. If counties successfully lowered their probation failure rates, from a specified baseline, they were eligible for state grant funding that drew upon the total state cost savings. An SB 678 review for 2011 concluded the policy was successful in diverting thousands from state prison and netted savings of approximately $277.8 million.

This new policy by Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer allows California to develop a sustainable state-county partnership that improves long-term public safety. Both the state and county have a necessary role in our juvenile justice system. Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer’s proposal recognizes the individual strength of each, while creating a lasting funding stream that builds real positive outcomes for our youth.