Report: Plan to Expand California Youth Prisons Needs Tinkering

A report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office raised some doubts about Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to see more older youth and young adults served in the state youth prison system administered by the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

In January, as part of his 2018-2019 budget proposal, Brown (D) suggested three changes that would increase the population served by the DJJ as part of his annual budget trailer legislation. Under Brown’s plan, youth sent to DJJ from juvenile court would be able to stay until 25, and those juveniles who are sentenced in adult court could remain in juvenile lockups until age 25 if they could complete their sentence during that time (instead of age 21).

Brown’s proposal also includes a young adult offender pilot program that would authorize the state to place 76 young adults in DJJ facilities if they could complete their sentences by their 25th birthday. The governor’s juvenile justice reforms would cost $3.8 million in the next fiscal year and would rise to $9.2 million in 2020-21.

Those changes would involve opening up four units at DJJ facilities, which are currently operating at just 37 percent of their capacity, according to a recent fact sheet from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. During the last fiscal year, a stay at a DJJ facility cost taxpayers $317,771 per youth.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), which provides nonpartisan fiscal and policy analysis to the California legislature, recommended that the state legislature approve the governor’s proposed plan for the expansion of the DJJ but said that the changes could result in some young people being incarcerated at DJJ facilities for up to two additional years as a result of the proposal. Some youth who are now eligible to stay at DJJ facilities until their 23rd birthday could remain until turning 25.

“This is potentially problematic because research suggests that keeping a youth in treatment programs for a longer period of time than required on average does not appear to increase the effectiveness of the programs,” a report released on Tuesday said. “Given that this would also increase the costs of housing these youths, it is unlikely to be a cost‑effective way to reduce recidivism.”

LAO is not alone in voicing skepticism about the plan. Some advocates in the state see the DJJ plan as a bid to boost dwindling populations in the state’s youth prison system.

The LAO noted the DJJ’s considerable evaluation problems. The last look at recidivism rates for young people incarcerated at DJJ facilities among a 2012 cohort found that 74.2 percent of youth released from a DJJ facility in 2012 were re-arrested within three years.

According to the LAO, without another assessment coming until next year, that means that the DJJ’s “programs cannot be considered evidence-based.”

The report from the LAO offered a few recommendations for Brown’s plans.

While Brown’s proposal indicated that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Research would be involved in tracking youth outcomes, the report urged the use of an outside evaluator to assess the cost‑effectiveness of the program’s approach toward recidivism.

The LAO also suggested altering Brown’s plan to serve youth coming from the juvenile court system in DJJ through age 25. It recommends providing juvenile court judges with greater discretion during transfer hearings in order to prevent youth from being sent to the adult system. “This would provide an alternative to sending such youth to adult court without resulting in other juvenile court youths remaining in DJJ beyond their 23rd birthday unnecessarily,” the report said.

Finally, the report said, all three of the governor’s proposals should be approved with time limits — perhaps seven years — to ensure that the new policies at DJJ are being implemented as envisioned.

The governor’s DJJ budget proposal will be discussed on March 7 by the state’s Assembly Budget Subcommittee.

You can read the LAO report here.

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