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The National Lawyer’s Guild Western Regional Conference on Saturday, April 28th, featured a panel on Realignment and Juvenile Justice in California.” The one day conference centered on the prominent Occupy” movement and focused on the future of the socially and economically disenfranchised. It asked, what does justice for the 99% look like?

Youth comprise one of the most vulnerable and pertinent populations for this discussion. They are marginalized in the political process and their due process rights are curtailed in the justice process. Children are increasingly being born into poverty where access to education, health care, and opportunity is scarce. Yet, adolescents are one of the most law-abiding populations in the country. 

The panel on Saturday discussed Governor Brown’s proposal to eliminate the state youth correctional facilities and transfer responsibility for all youth offenders to counties; a process known as juvenile justice realignment. Many juvenile justice advocates, direct service providers, policy makers, and impacted youth support the Governor’s proposal. Serving youth offenders locally has more chance of achieving rehabilitation and improving public safety. 

Moreover, as budget cuts to needed social services continue, many recognize that it is no longer feasible to maintain the state system, which costs over $242 million per year to serve less than 1,000 youth, with a recidivism rate of 75%. If California chooses to maintain the state youth correctional facilities, deeper cuts will have to be made elsewhere in order to balance the state’s increasing budget shortfalls. 

The panelists discussed youth engagement around closure of the state facilities — notorious for derelict conditions and inadequate services. At the legislative hearings in March 2012, Los Angeles youth drove through the night to provide public comment in support of the Governor’s proposal to the Assembly Budget Public Safety Committee. From inside the facilities, youth are speaking out about the conditions of their confinement in letters to the outside world. Youth across the country have begun to organize, rally, and protest the lack of investment in their (and consequently this country’s) future. 

While law enforcement associations oppose the challenge to the status quo, reform is necessary to achieve a fair and equitable juvenile justice system that serves the public safety needs of our communities. California must be responsible with the scarce resources it has left, and policy makers must be accountable to the population they represent; including the state’s youth.