Juvenile Justice and Climate Change: California Has a Chance to Confront Both

young woman with axe CCC

A young woman in the California Conservation Corps works on a trail path. Photo: The Corps Network

California faces crucial choices. The state can continue scrambling to address burgeoning climate-change crises while it spends $316,000 per youth per year to watch Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) inmates languish idly and suffer staggering recidivism, plus $90,000 annually per California Department of Corrections (CDCR) inmate for prisoners offered little rehabilitation.

Or, California can take bold, comprehensive steps to educate, train and employ thousands of juvenile and adult inmates in critical conservation fields offering practical wages, work experience, professional certifications and post-release jobs.

California has vital infrastructure components to radically expand its conservation workforce already in place. Several hundred juvenile and 13,000 adult inmates are assigned minimum security status, authorized to work outside facilities under minimal supervision. California has more than 11,000 state-certified beds in 140 conservation, fire and juvenile detention camps, and two-thirds of them are empty due to the unprecedented drop in juvenile arrests.

Money is available. Our analysis of state budget tabulations shows $5 billion has been saved in large part to the 83 percent decline in youth arrests, closure of eight of 11 DJJ facilities, and a 70 percent cut in DJJ’s budget since 1996.

A California Conservation Corps fire crew from Butte Fire Center hikes between stations. Photo: Red Bluff Daily News

Tentative steps are underway. Two thousand adult and youth inmates fought fires in 2018 alongside the Department of Forestry’s CAL FIRE firefighters. The California Conservation Corps (CCC) provides 1,400 civilian workers with jobs, high school diplomas, college and vocational-tech stipends, and certifications in firefighting and other employable conservation skills. The governor’s 2019-20 budget modestly expands the CCC, including a small CCC-DJJ apprenticeship initiative.

Unfortunately, these piecemeal efforts are woefully inadequate. The slow pace and small scale of ameliorative efforts fail to match scientists’ “broad consensus” on the seriousness of looming environmental challenges, the Legislative Analysis laments.

Scientists and the Legislative Analyst warn that the state is unprepared for worsening wildfires, sea level rise, extreme weather cycles, forestry decline, floods and earthquakes. Trained workforces are needed to manage fires, reduce combustible fuel buildup, modernize aging flood control and water delivery systems, restore fisheries and rangelands, undertake $1.6 billion in deferred state parks maintenance, and install carbon-reduction technologies.

Similarly, fragmentary justice reform proposals largely protect old dogmas and bureaucracies. Governor Gavin Newsom wants to move DJJ from CDCR to the Health and Human Services Agency and establish “campus-style” units for younger inmates within state prisons. The Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) proposes to infuse the dwindling juvenile system with 18- and 19-year-old adults.

Internal shufflings of agencies and inmates have been tried and retried. Juvenile justice was moved to Human Services in 1969, then returned to Corrections in 1980. “Therapeutic reforms” were pushed in the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and early 2000s. Each time, proponents promised some magical rehabilitative breakthrough that proved illusory.

Today is no different. CPOC claims its “new science” of “teenage brain development” deserves credit for the massive decline in crime by youth. That’s nonsense. Crime by youth is tied to poverty and family troubles, not brain miswiring. CPOC’s 19th century notion that teenagers are innately crime-prone is nothing new and has been debunked by scientific reviews. It has no relevance to today’s teenagers, who have lower crime rates than middle-agers.

Young people themselves are bringing down crime by not entering the system in the first place. Juvenile probation referrals fell from 207,000 in 1995 to 38,000 in 2018. Arrests of 18- to 19-year-olds are down 70 percent.

But the few youths still referred enter a justice system as troubled and ineffectual as ever. Even as per-youth costs soar above $300,000 per year, DJJ facilities remain plagued with abuses, wasted days and high recidivism rates (76 percent of youths released from state facilities are re-arrested within three years). Absent a major operational overhaul, the Legislative Analyst concludes, “it is unlikely that it [the governor’s plan] would improve outcomes for youth.”

What, then, would real reform look like? California’s challenges and opportunities demand greater state investments in large-scale initiatives to educate, employ and train justice-system-involved youths and adults.

A greatly expanded conservation corps overseen by the CCC in coordination with correctional, fire, environmental and local-government agencies could provide paying jobs to thousands of inmates. CCC’s education, training, professional certification and job counseling programs are exactly what those paroled inmates need. A pilot program employing up to 10,000 qualifying, low-risk juvenile and adult inmates could build on existing fire-camp models.

A large share of CCC’s budget is funded by reimbursements for work projects, an expandable revenue pool that could be further supplemented by redirecting savings from reduced prisoner costs. Multi-agency endeavors often require oversight by umbrella agencies, and Human Services might be logical.

During the Great Depression, the old Civilian Conservation Corps operated more than 500 camps employing hundreds of thousands in California, and it left a legacy of vital public works. California has urgent challenges, resources and infrastructure for bold innovation. Now it needs imagination and leadership.

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

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