As Juvenile Arrests Plummet, California Still Investing in Incarceration Facilities

Note: This story was updated on July 23 to reflect the correct job title of a source.

Despite California’s steep decline in juvenile crime and incarceration rates, the state is spending millions of dollars helping counties finance the renovation and expansion of juvenile halls and camps.

The California Board of State Community Corrections (BSCC), the agency overseeing adult and juvenile correctional facilities, will give out nearly $80 million available in lease-revenue bonds to support expansion of the bed capacity in the state.

Advocates and researchers criticized the solicitation, saying that juvenile crime and arrests rates are at all time lows, and that at any given time the average county hall or camp is half full.

“The traditional view toward at-risk youth is to lock them up and give them treatment,” said Barry Krisberg, senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley law school. “Quality treatment behind a razor wire doesn’t ring true.”

BSCC, which oversees adult and juvenile correctional facilities in California, has opened the process to public review. The agency posted a draft proposal on Friday afternoon outlining the eligibility requirements for the financing on its website.

BSCC acknowledged advocates’ concerns and the prevailing trend toward treatment and adding non-secure, non-residential treatment options in the description of the next $80 million outlay, but advocates worry that counties will go for the more traditional options.

“They should give the money back and re-purpose it,” said Frankie Guzman, a staff attorney at National Center for Youth Law, but, he added, the chances of that happening are “absolutely zero.”

The new funding comes seven years after the state shifted the responsibility of non-serious juvenile offenders to local probation departments. A 2007 law prohibited counties from sending all but the most violent of their juvenile offenders to state facilities, and allocated money for county probation departments to handle the influx of youth.

Juvenile felony arrests in the state have plummeted since the bill’s passage, dropping from around 66,000 to 36,400 in 2012. In 1996, 10,000 youth were housed in state-run correctional facilities; now, fewer than 700.

The shift away from state incarceration has not swelled the numbers at the county level. Juvenile halls and camps statewide operated at half of total capacity in 2013, based on the total number of beds available, according to corrections data compiled by Commonweal.

“Many of the probation chiefs aren’t considering expanding beds but are looking for alternative ways to serve kids in existing spaces,” said Mike Daly, the probation chief of Marin County and president of California Probation Chiefs Association. Marin currently houses 10 youths in a facility built in 1962 that can hold up to 40.

“The SB 81 money is useful just so long as it isn’t strictly for brick and mortar and has the wiggle room necessary to allow local jurisdiction to be creative.”

The state has already given a total of $220 million to 13 counties through Local Youthful Offender Rehabilitative Facility Construction grants since 2009. Shasta County replaced an old 56-bed juvenile hall with an $18 million, 96-bed facility in 2013. Monterey and Alameda counties got $35 million each to replace existing facilities with larger, higher capacity ones.

Former Alameda Probation Chief David Muhammad inherited the funding plan for Alameda’s new 166-bed juvenile camp, set to replace a 60-bed facility that had fallen into disrepair. He said he took the project back to BSCC to propose a significant reduction in size, but was denied. The project has since been reduced to 150 beds according to a BSCC updated status document.

“Old decrepit facilities need to be replaced,” said Muhammad, who left Alameda in 2013 and now serves as director of national justice programs at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.  “It would be best to do pure replacement – dollar for dollar, bed for bed replacement – [not] new expansion.”

According to a letter sent in May to the BSCC by 12 juvenile justice advocacy groups, the majority of the money went to large juvenile halls and camps, some of which increased bed capacity. The letter urged the agency to seek alternatives to locking youth up and define clear goals for rehabilitation with guidelines for measuring progress.

From the letter:

“For the majority of youth involved with the juvenile justice system, detainment or incarceration in a locked facility… often harms the youth, wastes taxpayer dollars and provides no benefit for public safety.

Instead, community-based alternatives to incarceration – non-secure treatment programs that might include mentoring programs, cognitive behavior skills training, or family intervention – are more cost effective and successful strategies for most youth.”

Tracie Cone, spokesperson for the BSCC, told The Imprint that the same advocates have called for improvements to existing facilities.

“If this round of financing had been directed only to non-secure, non-residential treatment programs those same advocates might be concerned that some California juvenile facilities are not up to modern standards and should have been eligible for funding to improve conditions,” Cone said. “Not every county has improved local facilities for juveniles for whom incarceration is the most appropriate option, and those needs still must be addressed.”

Brian Goldstein of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said another letter will be sent to BSCC detailing what they think are the pros and cons of the proposal. The public can comment on the draft Request for Funding Proposal, or RFP, via email until July 28. The agency is schedule to finalize the RFP September 12.

Submit comments:, or contact Deputy Director Allison Ganter at 916-323-8617 or

Brian Rinker is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s journalism program. 

CorrectionBarry Krisberg is a senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley, not the Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy as he was mistakenly titled.

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

Contra Costa County's DA plans task force with eye on closing juvenile hall, expanding community alternatives #juvenilejustice

BREAKING: House introduces major #childwelfare COVID-19 bill that would require some states to prevent aging out of #fostercare, and take all #FamilyFirst Act prevention costs off of state