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Brown backs off plan to shut down youth prisons

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaking on budget cuts during a news conference on May 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaking on budget cuts during a news conference on May 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images

Alongside the much-publicized cuts to in-home supportive services and potentially education in Governor Jerry Brown's revised budget this week targeting the state's $15.7 billion shortfall, one state agency was quietly spared: the Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as the California Youth Authority.

For the second time in two years, Brown had proposed eliminating the agency in his original budget this year, only to face massive outcry from the correctional officers' union, as well as district attorneys and law enforcement groups. Both times he floated the proposal, Brown pointed to the fact that the juvenile prison population has declined in California from a high of over 10,000 inmates in 1996 to 1,032 as of February 29, 2012. Furthermore, the agency remains under court oversight following a host of settlements springing from claims of systemic abuse and mistreatment of juvenile offenders. The consensus among correctional officials and juvenile justice reformers is that the DJJ has vastly improved conditions over the past few years, though allegations of harsh treatment persist. 

Currently, the state spends about $179,000 per year to house each inmate. In an attempt to encourage counties to treat juvenile offenders locally, Brown had originally proposed charging each county $124,000 a year for each inmate. The Governor's new budget reduces that charge to $25,000 per juvenile. 

Sumayyah Waheed, campaign director for Books Not Bars at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, says lower costs and more effective programming at the local level should be enough incentive to eliminate the state system. 

"We appreciate any progress in mitigating the harm of the DJJ," Waheed says. "But this is just working around the edges."

Under Brown's revised proposal, juvenile parole operations will still be phased to county responsibility over the next two years. Furthermore, the jurisdictional age of the DJJ will go down to 23 from 25--meaning wards (other than those awaiting transfer to adult prison) will automatically be released from custody on their 23rd rather than 25th birthday. 

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Spokesman Bill Sessa says the governor's reversal was for good cause. 

"The youth we are serving, some of them, are from counties that don't have treatment programs for violent youth," he says. Moreover, Sessa says the DJJ has made great strides in streamlining its budget, closing some facilities and laying off headquarters staff. "We're focusing on serving our youth," he says. 

Department of Finance Spokesman H.D. Palmer adds that counties are already dealing with adult prison realignment. "And we didn't want to overburden that process, knowing that there's a transition period we're going through right now," he says.

In Los Angeles County, which has about 300 juveniles in the state system, more than any other county, Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers calls Brown's change of heart "great news." 

"These kids currently in DJJ are such high-end kids, that to bring them back and put them into a local system would in many ways make the local system be disruptive and make it be less safe," Powers says. Powers says he's not thrilled with the state's proposal to charge counties for kids they send to the DJJ--which would likely mean a $7 million bill for LA. "We don't have seven million dollars sitting around," Powers says.

Waheed from the Ella Baker Center, which has been advocating for local options for youth since its inception, says the fight to close the DJJ is far from over. She hopes the legislature will push the DJJ to cut more than the $25 million currently on the table. 

"DJJ has been a merry-go-round of crisis, followed sometimes by moderate improvements and then crisis again," Waheed says. "Counties should just take that bold step of saying, 'enough is enough, let's stop dumping money into a failed system.'"