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A story in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye. The title tells most of the story: California to close its largest juvenile prison.” The institution is the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. They will convert it to an adult prison and eventually transfer the young offenders to other programs in the state, mostly in county facilities closer to their families. 

Stark has been part of what most experts consider one of the dinosaurs” of juvenile institutions, the California Youth Authority (CYA). This system dates back to the early 1940s and has come under fire repeatedly over the years for its brutality, lack of rehabilitation programming, violence and high recidivism rates (one study put the rate at 90%). A series of reports surfaced back in the 1980s condemning practices within the CYA (e.g., Steve Lerner’s Bodily Harm: The Pattern of Fear and Violence at the California Youth Authority). In 2002 the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice published Aftercare as Afterthought” where it was noted that the wards” (a nice sounding word that hides what they really are: prisoners) of the CYA often lived in constant fear. (For an excellent overview of the CYA — published in 2004 — see California Legislative Analyst’s Office (2004). A Review of the California Youth Authority’s Infrastructure,” May.)

CYA scandals have persisted to the present day. In the fall of 2004 the CYA was once again rocked by revelations of extreme brutality, suicides, horrible physical conditions and almost total failure to live up to its mission statement. The Los Angeles Times published a series of reports documenting the violence and brutality within CYA institutions, including Herman Stark. Dan Macallair, Director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, stated The California Youth Authority is a dinosaur … based on a 19th century model. The institutions need to be torn down.”

Finally, the state took notice and began to reduce the population and transfer youth to country facilities. Presently the population is down to a mere 1,700, down from a high of 10,000 a couple of decades ago.

From the 19th century houses of refuge” and reform schools,” through the 20th century training schools,” the story has remained the same: placing young offenders in such total institutions’ is counterproductive. Are we finally nearing the end of an era in juvenile justice?