Less than a week after joining dozens of other prosecutors, corrections officials and probation chiefs in signing an open letter calling for the closure of all youth prisons, one California district attorney took her first official step toward doing just that in her own county.
Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton on Tuesday announced that she was setting up a task force to study the issue and make recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors in January. Becton, in a statement, said the county has an opportunity to “reimagine youth justice” as the country rethinks many aspects of the justice system in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
In addition to its juvenile hall, Contra Costa County has two other juvenile detention facilities, and the Youthful Offender Treatment Program and the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Center, which faces its own possible closure because of its high cost of operation, according to the Brentwood Press.
In March, the average daily population of the juvenile hall was 46, down from 116 in March 2015, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.
Becton was appointed in September 2017 when her predecessor, Mark Peterson, stepped down after pleading no contest to perjury, and was elected on her own the next year. Before becoming DA, Becton served 22 years as a trial judge in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area county.
Although her announcement of the task force came a day after protesters outside the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall called for that facility’s closure, she was already on record as favoring such a move.
The Reimagine Youth Justice Task Force, as Becton dubbed it, will include both community members and county officials involved in the current system. The first order of business is to come up with a safe and sound way of closing the juvenile hall. After that, she expects the group to turn to recommendations “on the most effective ways to invest in our justice-involved youth through restorative, community-based solutions.”
The prosecutor said closing Contra Costa’s juvenile hall is not only the right thing to do for reasons of justice, but it will also save money. Although juvenile crime has been falling for years both locally and across the state, leading to fewer kids in the local lockup, Becton said the average cost of incarcerating youth did not fall, as one might expect. Indeed, it soared to nearly $475,000 a year, compared with $336,000 that the state spends to lock up its most troubled youth at Division of Juvenile Justice facilities.
If the county focuses its effort on taking advantage of younger people’s natural ability to change their ways, in contrast to adults, Becton said studies show, the payoff will be huge in terms of money — and lives turned around.
“Moving away from youth incarceration, she said in her statement, “is in the best interest of rehabilitation, public safety and fiscal responsibility. Research has shown that youth can be better treated and rehabilitated in community contexts where they can retain ties to family, school, and their community.”