After a plan to create a new young adult prison system in California failed last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is moving forward with two proposals to serve more juveniles and some young adults in the state’s juvenile prisons.
Currently, juveniles who are convicted as adults before their 18th birthday are sent to Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities. If they are able to complete their sentence by age 23, they remain at one of the three DJJ facilities. If not, they are transferred to adult prisons at age 18.
As part of his initial budget proposal released last month, Brown proposed raising the age that youth could be served at DJJ prisons from 23 to 25.
In addition, Brown set aside $3.8 million a year for three years to support a pilot project to transfer a cohort of about 100 young adults with less serious offenses to vacant units at DJJ facilities.
Embedded in a budget bill that will be discussed in the months to come, the pair of proposals have many advocates concerned again about the future role of the DJJ.
“DJJ is in a very interesting position — they have to either adapt or become obsolete,” said Frankie Guzman, director of the California Juvenile Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL). “This is a blatant opportunity for them to fill beds when there wasn’t an opportunity to do it before.”
In 2016-2017, DJJ housed about 674 youth on a daily basis, with that number projected to drop to 615 in the current fiscal year. That’s about half the number of youth who were incarcerated at the facilities in 2011, and a far cry from 2001, when state-operated juvenile training schools housed more than 10,000 offenders. The remaining DJJ facilities have a total capacity of 1,735, according to federal reporting documents.
This is not the first time that California has considered providing an alternative to the state’s prison system for young adults. Last year, a plan championed by Anti-Recidivism Coalition President Scott Budnick would have created the California Leadership Academy, a therapeutic prison facility administered by the DJJ that would serve only 18- to 25-year-olds in the adult prison system.
A few states, including Connecticut and South Carolina, have begun to establish separate prison facilities for young adults, mindful of the very high rates of recidivism experienced by this group. The California Leadership Academy plan foundered last year amid strong opposition from juvenile justice advocates in the state.
The state’s juvenile prisons, with their stated goals of rehabilitation, are the best places to work with young adults, according to DJJ Director Chuck Supple, who was appointed to his post in October.
“This is not completely foreign territory for us,” Supple said, noting that the average age of youth in DJJ facilities is about 19.
“Given the fact that brain science shows that there are more years of opportunity to be able to assist young adults in order to change, perhaps there is a population of young adults, emerging adults, who could also benefit from what we have to offer,” he said.
But the idea that DJJ facilities could be rehabilitative for young people has not always been a prevalent opinion. In 2002, public interest law firm Prison Law Office launched landmark litigation (known as the Farrell lawsuit) against the California Youth Authority (which is now known as the DJJ) as a result of reports of violent abuse and neglect at state-run facilities.
The Farrell lawsuit ended up placing the system in a consent decree, with the goal of creating “adequate and effective care, treatment and rehabilitative services” for youth at the facilities.
Since then, the state has pumped millions of dollars into the system as a result of the long-running lawsuit. Court oversight from the lawsuit ended in February 2016, and Director Supple thinks that the state’s investment in creating an evidence-based system to better support young offenders’ transition back into society could also be used by young adults.
“I think this is a natural outgrowth post-Farrell, thinking about what DJJ has to offer and whom it could best benefit,” Supple said.
But as the state thinks about expanding the footprint of DJJ, both with the young adult offender pilot program and the decision to serve wards longer at DJJ facilities, it will have to contend with poor data outcomes.
According to a report released last year, 74.2 percent of youth released from a DJJ facility in 2012 were re-arrested within three years. Nearly 54 percent were convicted of a new offense, leading more than a third to return to state‐level incarceration.
“We have doubts whether a prison model can ever be effective at rehabilitation and providing services in that setting,” said Maureen Washburn, a policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). “The data that do exist show a real lack of effectiveness in terms of rehabilitation, mental health and other things. Our state dollars would be better spent developing community- and county-led alternatives to both DJJ and state prison.”
According to Supple, the state does not yet have an evaluation of DJJ facilities that include new investments made as a result of the Farrell litigation, including a court-ordered behavior treatment model. He is hopeful that a forthcoming evaluation of a more recent DJJ cohort from the University of California-Irvine will tell a different story.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the California District Attorneys Association declined to comment on the governor’s plans.
Guzman said NCYL’s goal is to see fewer juveniles sent to the adult system, a place where even therapeutic treatment during incarceration can be easily undermined by a difficult reality after release. Juvenile offenders with a conviction in an adult court aren’t eligible for the same type of supports and re-entry services as those coming from the juvenile system.
As more information surfaces about the pilot project, NCYL hopes to “mitigate the harms” in the proposal in an effort to focus it on the upside.
“We understand that if this really works, it could result in fewer kids being prosecuted as adults and that’s ultimately what we want to see,” Guzman said. “We want them in the juvenile system, getting treatment [and] not convicted as adults getting treatment in juvenile facilities, which hasn’t always been helpful.”
The proposal will likely be discussed in May before Brown and the California state legislature move to adopt a final budget in June.