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Napa County should invest in youth, not confinement

Originally posted on the Napa Valley Register.

Young people today represent one of the safest generations in California’s history. Arrest rates are falling and juvenile halls across the state sit half empty. But Napa County has learned the wrong lessons from this success. Rather than reinvest in community-based alternatives that improve public safety, the county is considering an expansion of incarceration for young adults.

Napa County | Wikimedia

State Senate Bill 1004 would confine 18- to 20-year-olds in juvenile halls for up to a year – taking them away from their homes and families and placing them behind bars and under constant threat of a felony conviction. Despite concerns from justice advocates, the bill’s misleading language has allowed it to clear each legislative hurdle and near the end of its journey to the governor’s desk.

Research shows that youth and young adults fare better when they are served in their communities near meaningful opportunities for education, employment, or treatment. Community-based services reduce recidivism and expand opportunities for systems-impacted people and their families.

By contrast, services administered behind bars are simply less effective because the institutional setting can reinforce a young person’s trauma. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 1004 disregards the research on what works best for low-risk young adults. It recommends incarceration for those who would be, and have been, better served in their communities.

Senate Bill 1004 aims to capitalize on empty juvenile beds by creating an unnecessary reason to fill them. California’s local juvenile facilities are operating at far below capacity, reflecting the steep, sustained declines in youth arrest over the last several decades, as well as recent state investment in new juvenile hall construction. Currently, Napa County’s juvenile facilities are three-fourths empty. But empty beds are an indication of progress, not a justification for new commitments and expanded detention.

While making Napa County more reliant on its juvenile hall, Senate Bill 1004 would fail to address concerns over Napa’s damaged jail facility and would incarcerate young people who should never face a jail sentence. As a condition of participation in the Senate Bill 1004 program, young adults must be charged with a non-serious, nonviolent offense – a requirement that ensures many of the participants will be low-risk. In the absence of Senate Bill 1004, many of these low-risk young adults could be placed under community supervision and receive proven community-based services.

As an approach not grounded in research, Senate Bill 1004 poses unjustifiable risk to Napa County and its young people. If Gov. Brown signs Senate Bill 1004 into law, Napa County may be left grappling with an untested model –- one that would expand incarceration, drive up costs, and limit opportunities for evidence-based alternatives to incarceration. We must urge the State Assembly and Gov. Brown to resist the appeal of reimagined incarceration and reject Senate Bill 1004.