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Correcting youth corrections in California

Courtesy of Flickr user Shawn Thorpe.
Paso Robles Youth Corrections Facility

This week, US Supreme Court took up the issue of life without parole for juvenile offenders. The question for the justices is whether children who commit murder should have the chance at some point in their lives to prove they should be let free.

“Research shows that adolescent brain development is not complete through the early twenties,” says Sumayah Waheed, campaign director for Books Not Bars at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Waheed says this idea of children who commit crimes having the chance to redeem themselves is the foundational principle behind the juvenile justice system. “We as a state should not be subjecting young people who are still in the process of maturing to a sentence that’s so final as life without parole,” says Waheed.

Because of this philosophy, the Ella Baker Center has worked for years to close down California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as the California Youth Authority. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown proposed shutting down the DJJ for another reason – to help balance the state’s budget. As it stands, the DJJ operates five prisons, two camps, and 16 parole offices. It oversees more than a thousand juvenile offenders – 80 percent of whom recidivate after their release.

Those striking numbers support the governor’s cost-cutting plan, but critics wonder what the state will do with young people who commit serious crimes. KALW’s Rina Palta reported this on the potential closure when Governor Brown first announced his plan.

(Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of children whose criminal records have been sealed.)

It’s a sunny weekend in the Bay Area and Freddy is watching three of his little brothers turn the front driveway into a skateboard ramp. Today, Freddy is 24, but when he was younger – about the age of his preteen brothers – he spent time at juvenile hall and on probation. The first time was for assaulting someone during a fight. The second time was for trying to sell drugs at his school. He served a week for that offense. It wasn’t the last time he would see inside the walls of juvenile hall.

That day after Thanksgiving in the year 2000, Freddy shot a rival gang member. His charge on attempted murder sent him not back to the county juvenile hall, but to the California Youth Authority, the state’s juvenile corrections system now known as the Division of Juvenile Justice. In Freddy’s case, because of his gang history and behavior inside, he spent a lot of time in lockup, which means maximum security. “I caught up over a year just being in lockup for fighting, jumping gates to get to other people to fight them,” says Freddy. He says he spent most of his time in jail in lockup, barely leaving his room.

Freddy spent ten years inside the Division of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ – sometimes in facilities as close as Stockton, others as far away as the outskirts of LA. Which means it was hard for Freddy’s family to visit. Freddy has ten brothers and, at one time, when he was serving time in Chino, Freddy says almost his whole family came to visit.

Freddy saw six of his younger brothers that he hadn’t seen in about four years. “It was a really emotional experience for me,” he says, “because I met my youngest brother. I never knew him, you know.” Freddy says he didn’t know what to say to them, but shook their hands.

Instead of learning things like how to drive, how to use a computer and how to navigate the social world of high school, Freddy spent his teens learning to live by the rules of the juvenile prison system. And after ten years in the DJJ, Freddy finally got out. “I won’t say that I’m handicapped, but it has, in a way, kept me back,” he says.

On one hand, Freddy will have a clean record when he gets off parole on his 25th birthday. He was put in the system as a juvenile. Whatever he did as a kid would not follow him into adulthood – at least not on paper. But, is he ready to succeed as an adult? 

Barry Krisberg is the research and policy director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at Berkeley’s Law School. He says the spirit of the youth detention is to give young offenders a second chance.

“Several of the young people who’re in the system right now have committed very serious crimes at very young ages,” says Krisberg. “But they’re different people now. They’ve grown, they’ve matured, they’ve developed a different set of values.”

That’s the idea, anyway. But, to many kids inside, the youth facilities felt like prisons. In the 90s, the juvenile system hit its peak of 10,000 wards and the facilities became crowded. They were gang-infested, and kids who misbehaved would spend months inside of lockups. Kriberg calls those conditions “horrid” and “some of the worst that anyone had ever documented in juvenile justice.”

And that second chance the young offenders were given wasn’t turning into anything. The latest available data, which is from 2005, shows that about 81 percent of wards released from DJJ were arrested within three years of release. About 56 percent either returned to DJJ or entered an adult prison within three years. Those kinds of numbers led to a lawsuit against the DJJ in 2003 by the Prison Law Office. Governor Schwarzenegger chose not to fight it and agreed to make changes.

“The state promised that it would fix the system,” says Dan Macallair, director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Macallair says the state promised it would leave behind the “prison-like” facilities, eliminate violence and gangs, and provide wards with a safer place to be housed.

Some things have changed, Macallair says. The current population in the system has decreased about 90 percent to 1,200 wards. Several facilities have been closed and fewer offenders end up in lockups. As for promises that the system would fundamentally change and start focusing on rehabilitation, Macallair says the state has promised to do that since 2004 and has so far failed to do so. He supports Governor Jerry Brown’s new proposal to completely shut down the DJJ. Citing the $28 billion budget gap, Brown has proposed to completely dismantle the state system, which currently spends about $234,000 per child each year. The savings, according to Brown, would total $250 million and put the responsibility of care and reform of these offenders back on the county. But not everyone agrees with this solution.

Macallair and Krisberg, both juvenile justice reformers, have different takes on the matter. At the heart of each of their opinions is a debate over who would best prepare these kids for adulthood – the county or the state.

We don’t yet have any details of Governor Brown’s plan, like how much money he plans on giving the counties to absorb more kids, or where the most troubled kids will be housed. But to some people, like Krisberg, the idea of tearing up the DJJ sounds crazy. He wonders why the state would want to tear up a system that’s been the subject of reform for years – a system that, no matter what, lets kids get out at the latest when they’re 25. “So we’re taking them out of not very great facilities, kind of passable programming, and we’re putting them into hell,” he explains. Krisberg says some county facilities are known for being worse than the state's.

Krisberg also fears that if there’s no juvenile prison system, prosecutors will feel compelled to try more kids as adults. And for those who commit serious crimes, he fears counties won’t be willing to keep and rehabilitate them. “The board of supervisors generally are not interested in spending money on these youth. And I think they’re going to be less interested in spending money on youth convicted of homicide, rape, gun crimes.”

There are all kinds of things in Brown’s budget proposal that are going to put pressure on the counties, especially in the criminal justice arena. There’s a proposal to put low-level offenders in county jail, and to move parole supervision of many offenders to county probation departments. Who’s going to pay for all of this and what will prevent the state from simply walking away and leaving the counties to pick up the pieces? 

Macallair, of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, says the next few months are going to be important to figuring out the answer. He says it will be easier for the state to fulfill it’s promise of improving the system if it’s not simultaneously putting money into DJJ while propping up county systems. It will be easier, he thinks, to just focus on the counties. “When the counties have to face the necessity of developing services for a broader range of kids, they’ll do it,” he says. “And you know what, I think they’ll do it well. They’ll step up to the challenge.”

Meanwhile, as the state is considering leaving behind an old system, Freddy is trying to leave behind his record and start fresh. “Here I am now and since I’ve been out, I’ve been doing everything I have to do to maintain myself out of trouble,” he says.

After 10 years of being detained, his goals are to get a job, get into school, get his own place to live, and importantly, get his drivers license. Most importantly, Freddy says he values patience – something he learned in the correctional system. And something he’ll need as he tries to navigate this new life and leave the old one behind.

This story originally aired on January 26, 2011. 

Rina Palta reports on criminal justice for KALW News. Through stories of those affected by the system, she hopes to bring insight to an often misunderstood, polarizing, and politicized issue. Rina came to KALW from a print background, having worked in magazines for a number of years before being pulled into broadcast while earning a masters degree at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. Along with KALW, her work has been published in Mother Jones magazine, the San Francisco Weekly, and Hyphen magazine. Rina edits and writes for KALW's criminal justice blog, The Informant, where you can find news and analysis on all aspects of California's criminal justice world.