The days are numbered for California’s state-run juvenile justice system, as both the governor and legislature have gotten behind its closure. One piece of the sunsetting plan being discussed by lawmakers might be of interest to advocates and policymakers in other places, because it addresses an issue germane to all states: the transfer of youth into adult court and, potentially, adult jail and prison.
With youth advocates concerned that the shuttering of state facilities might prompt counties to transfer more kids into adult court, the initial legislative plan in California suggests a novel approach to checking that inclination – putting counties on the hook for the cost of locking them up.
To back up a step, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was initially planning to dramatically change the way the state Department of Juvenile Justice operates, but keep it open. As the pandemic hit, and it became clear that California would face a massive budget crunch, he included plans to shut down DJJ. The Legislature pumped the brakes on an immediate closure, but agreed to craft a plan to quickly move toward ending an agency with a fraught history handling a dwindling number of youth in antiquated facilities.
Few, if any, champions for youth justice believe that DJJ facilities are a good option, but there was some concern about the collateral consequences of closure. The agency mostly houses serious offenders who have been tried as adults and will head to adult lockup at age 18, or young adults doing a juvenile sentence into their 20s. Were it to go away, counties would be tasked with incarcerating these groups, and the fear is that some counties might step up the number of youth who are tried in adult court.
California used to transfer a lot of teens every year, in part because it allowed prosecutors to directly file cases in adult court. But in the past decade, a ballot initiative ended direct file, and a law was passed to ban all transfers of teens younger than 16.
The drop in transfers is staggering. In 2010, 976 youth were transferred, with 384 of them sentenced to prison time, according to state data. Last year, California counties sent just 64 juvenile cases to adult court, with 20 sentenced to prison.
In hopes of keeping the use of transfers low, the legislative plan to close DJJ includes a fiscal disincentive for the practice. Here’s how it works.
In California, counties are required to house most adult offenders in their own correctional facilities. If a county wants the state to take an offender convicted of lower-level crimes, it has to pay a daily rate to do so. But those convicted of serious and violent offenses can be committed to the state at no cost to counties.
But under this plan, if a county wants to sentence a juvenile in adult court for any offense, it will share in the cost of any time he or she does in a state correctional facility. And not just while they are young – for the entire time. So if a youth convicted of murder gets 40 years, the county will pay what’s called the “marginal cost” for every one of those 40 years that is spent in state facilities.
Were this to make it into the final plan, the question becomes: is the “transfer tax” high enough to deter the practice from becoming more a norm again? A recent California budget report puts the marginal cost for incarcerating one inmate at just north of $9,000.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice “supports this incentive approach as part of the larger package to close DJJ, and we believe the determined marginal cost will impact policy outcomes locally to improve youth placements,” said Renee Menart, policy analyst for the organization, in an email.
Neelum Arya, a juvenile justice expert based in Los Angeles, said in an email to Youth Services Insider it might be enough of a push to keep counties from trying youth as adults for their first serious alleged offense. But she said she was “not sure how it will impact the repeat offender-type cases where kids in juvenile are failing out of juvenile. I suspect they will give those kids ‘a pass’ until they turn 18 and commit a crime, and just charge them as regular adults.”