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Lead juvenile justice expert says state facilities should stay open

For more than thirty years, it's been Barry Krisberg's priority to fight for reforms in California's state juvenile correctional facilities, known as the California Youth Authority (CYA) or Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). And now a change is coming at the DJJ. 

Only three of California's state facilities still remain open, holding a total of about 800 to 900 youth, and soon the state will hand down responsibility of juvenile offenders to counties. But Krisberg, the Director of the of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley's School of Law, isn't so sure that this realignment is the wisest decision. Turnstyle sat down with him to discuss the coming changes to California's juvenile justice system and what they will mean for both the state of California and its counties.

Turnstyle: You’ve spent much of your career critiquing DJJ, yet now you’re advocating to keep it open. Why?

Barry Krisberg: It’s true, for the thirty years I’ve been a critic of the California Youth Authority and the conditions of confinement and the problems there. But two things have changed in this situation. One is that the population is now only 10 percent of what it used to be. Many of the youth that we were advocating to get out of DJJ, are now out and in county programs and that’s gone generally pretty well. Now we’re down to a very small core of very troubled young people and so I think that people need to pay attention to the fact that these are not the youth who have been in the system in the past.
The second issue is that in the last eight years there have been significant improvements made—not enough, not as much as I would like. But one of the problems is that at the county level they’re at ground zero. My concern is that we’ve worked hard, we’ve developed policy and procedure, we’ve improved education and medical care, we’ve cut down on the use of force and isolation but at the county level they’ve done nothing. So it’d be going back to where we were eight years ago, very harsh conditions, very harsh practices, and having to start all over again.

Turnstyle: According to a 2010 DJJ report, youth released from DJJ had an 81.1% arrest rate at the end of 3 years. And almost two-thirds were arrested within one year of release. Is that a sign of the ineffectiveness of state facilities in rehabilitating youth?

Krisberg: Absolutely. I think that generally speaking, Youth Correctional Facilities are incredibly ineffective. We need to do a lot more in terms improve the quality of services. Particularly we need to pay much more attention to what happens when youth get released. I wrote a long time ago that therapy behind razor wire is not evidence-based programming. Unfortunately what I see is too many people paying attention to counseling and therapy behind lock doors. So you get some of that and maybe it helps you a little bit but then you go home and you face the same challenges you were faced with before: you don’t have a place to live, you don’t have a job, there’s a good chance you’ve been kicked out of school, your gang friends are saying, “Hey. Get back in the gang.” So all of these forces are pulling you back in the wrong direction and right now neither the state nor the counties do very much to support people during those very difficult times.

Turnstyle: Do you feel the outcomes would be at all different if youth were housed locally or are there other factors that lead to such a high recidivism rate?

Krisberg: I don’t think that local is the key. I’ve seen excellent programs for serious juvenile offenders in very isolated setting. I think the question is the content of the program. Are people being treated decently and humanely? Are they given the kind of resources they need?
I’m a big fan of the Missouri Department of Juvenile Justice Model, to the extent that that we move away from treating young people as inmates and prisoners and start understanding that are going to rejoin our communities pretty quickly and be citizens, that’s the key. In terms of closer to home, the way to deal with that is to create opportunities for reentry.

To me the number one problem is that when you put someone in a high security locked facility you take away all of their decision-making. Then you turn them loose after years of not even having to do any of the basics like set an alarm clock or figure out what you’re going to eat for lunch. It’s really a shock to the psyche to be under such a controlled environment and then be thrown into the chaos of communities. Therefore I think the best programs prepare youth for going home by giving them more responsibility, more freedom, more opportunity to demonstrate that they can succeed. We haven’t done that in California. We haven’t done that around the country.

Turnstyle: So, it’s not a matter of state or local but the programs that would help those leaving either of those areas?

Krisberg: The biggest payoff in terms of reducing recidivism is in the programs that help people return home but having said that the current state facilities and most county facilities are basically jails. They look like jails, they smell like jails, [there’s the] the typical open toilet in the middle of the room. Everything about them is communicating that you are prisoner and that you should act like an intimate.

In Missouri it’s completely different. In Missouri the facilities, the conditions, even how you’re allowed to dress communicate that you’re an ordinary young person and I think that’s a critical ingredient. Ultimately what we’re looking for is for young people to adopt a different identity, a positive identity, a success identity and to the extent that we keep throwing in their faces that they’ve screwed up and they’re convicts then they’re going to act like convicts.

This interview was originally published onYouthRadio.org on March 23, 2012.

Crosscurrents juvenile justice