Good News in California

Last week the California State Legislature passed Bill SB81, which calls for halving the number of wards held in the state’s prisons. Governor Schwarzenegger is widely expected to sign it when it crosses his desk. If and when he does, the occasion will mark a watershed for juvenile justice reform in California, the state with arguably the nation’s worst, most punitive system for handling young offenders. A shrinking California Division of Juvenile Justice is very good news those who believe, as I do, that the DJJ is broken beyond repair and that the best way to reform it is to shut it down and start over from scratch.

In the short term, of course, counties will be hit rather hard; as the population shrinks at the state level (it’s currently at about 2,600, down from an outrageous peak of 10,000), the number of wards held at local juvenile halls and outdoor camps will grow. This presents a serious challenge, as some counties are already operating at or beyond capacity, and many lack adequate resources for the wards they’re currently serving. Absorbing more teens–particularly those who have been hardened by the adultlike conditions at the DJJ prisons–will create more problems.

Thankfully, and wisely, along with this influx of offenders will come an influx of cash. Schwarzenegger agreed after some arm-twisting to set aside an average of roughly $130,000 per youth transferred to the county level. He also allocated $100 million for new facilities and rehab programs, and has given county officials wide latitude on how to spend the money. I also noticed that the state budget, which Schwarzenegger signed last Friday, includes $24 million for similar purposes.

Short-term challenges notwithstanding, the long-term goal is a good one. The basic premise of this bill is to reserve the state system for only the most violent offenders, and to keep it small enough so that they can be properly educated, treated and rehabilitated. The rest should be kept out of prison, close to home, and handled in a safe, sensible, supportive environment that aims to return them to their communities with a lesson learned as soon as possible.

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