Court to Consider Takeover of California Youth Prisons

Is receivership imminent for the California Division of Juvenile Justice? Could be.

Advocates at the San Francisco-based Prison Law Office, who filed a major taxpayer lawsuit in 2003 alleging abuse and institutional incompetence in the state’s youth prisons, have filed a follow-up complaint alleging that the comprehensive reforms Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised when he settled the case in 2004 have not come to pass. The state has squandered its chance to turn the juvenile prison system around, the advocates claim; now it’s time for the courts to step in.

Karen de Sá, a reporter who covers California’s chronically ailing juvenile justice system for the San Jose Mercury News, writes, “It’s been 3 1/2 years since an Alameda County judge ordered California to overhaul the institutions that house the state’s most serious juvenile offenders. He set a timeline for sweeping reforms that would transform the youth prisons into treatment centers. But the dates have come and gone with little significant change, while the price tag has grown astonishingly. The annual per-inmate cost for each juvenile offender in state custody is projected to be $252,312 next year–more than six times the cost of a year at Stanford University.”

To be sure, some progress has been made since the settlement, which brought a windfall of $120 million for reform efforts. Two notorious juvenile prisons were shut down earlier this year, and the population of youth incarcerated in state facilities has been cut in half (from about 5,500 in 2004 to roughly 2,300 in early 2008), as lower-level offenders are being offloaded onto counties. This, in turn, has put strain on the counties, many of which lack the resources or training to handle the surge–but that’s a matter for another post. What concerns the Prison Law Office, and what Superior Court Judge Jon Tigar must take into consideration as he reviews testimony in the coming weeks, is the current condition of the state system and the prospects for more substantial results.

According to court documents, de Sa reports, “the state has ‘slipped further and further out of compliance’ with the ordered reforms, showing a ‘glaring and pervasive lack of leadership.'” Consider, for example, that almost 75 percent of DJJ parolees recidivate soon after release. Further, says de Sa,

The documents cite “stunning and excessive violence” in many of the six youth prisons, indecent sanitation, and chaotic and disorganized bookkeeping. Treatment remains woeful, even though by the state’s own figures up to 80 percent of inmates suffer addictions and mental health disorders.

Will Tigar rule in agreement with Democratic State Assemblywomnan Sally Lieber, who says, “Report after report has proven that the system can’t reform itself, that it’s a diseased system that has to be dismantled”? Or will he side with Division of Juvenile Justice head Bernie Warner, who counters that “we are making progress, and our commitment is to do it so it’s sustainable. You can meet deadlines, but unless you institutionalize practice, three, four years from now you’re going to be back in litigation again”?

We’ll know the answer at some point this summer.

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