Bill to close youth prisons gaining attention, criticism
Sending the state's youth inmates back to their home counties may be the only way to deal with a dysfunctional and ineffective juvenile detention system, according to a state lawmaker.
A proposal by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, would over the next two years close down youth prisons across the state, including the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility outside Stockton, and send wards to county-operated detention and treatment facilities.
The bill, which was passed by the Assembly Public Safety Committee earlier this week on a 5-2 vote, is not the first such proposal to send committed youth offenders closer to home and families, but it is gaining attention - and criticism.
Lieber said Wednesday that the $216,081 it will cost this year to house each of the state's juvenile offenders would be better spent by the counties, rather than continuing to fund the youth prisons widely recognized as failing.
"Over and over, the system has proven its inability to reform itself," Lieber said. "It's really time to take advantage of the opportunity and close what's proven to be a dysfunctional and disreputable system."
Now is the time to act, Lieber said, because the number of youth inmates has hit a historic low. There are now 2,600 youth inmates, down from the all-time high of 10,000 in 1996. Fewer than 46 wards from San Joaquin County are in Division of Juvenile Justice facilities.
While violence at Chaderjian has dramatically declined in the past year, the youth prison garnered wide attention in recent years for gang fights, a suicide and one unexplained death.
A report last month by the state's Office of the Inspector General criticized the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino for failing to educate wards and rid the youth prison of contraband and weapons.
Lieber's is not the only such proposal that calls for sending wards to the counties.
Correctional officials under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger propose sending about half of the state's youthful committed offenders to their home counties, yet would maintain juvenile detention facilities for the toughest youth.
"You have an extreme bill that shuts everything down, and then you have a modest proposal," Bernard Warner, the state's Division of Juvenile Justice chief, said in comparing Lieber's and Schwarzenegger's plans.
Under the administration's plan, the state would pay counties $94,000 to house each ward who would have gone to the state. Lieber agreed that the counties could probably do the job for that amount per ward.
The governor's budget proposes spending $53.3 million next year. Some wards need to stay in the state juvenile detention system, Warner said.
"There is a population in the state that is very high risk, very high need," he said.
Chris Hope, San Joaquin County's chief probation officer in charge of juvenile detention, said the county is ready to help ease the state's corrections woes, but it comes down to money.
"The state generally has not been forthcoming when it has forced its problems down to the local level," Hope said. "We're hoping that this can be different."
Hope said the San Joaquin County juvenile detention center does not have enough beds for more youths and for years there has been a dire lack of programs to treat mental health and substance abuse problems in juveniles.
Top corrections officials and the governor have visited San Joaquin County in the past couple of months to bring county officials on board, Hope said.
"There's a whole lot of discussion, and nobody has a real solid answer to all the issues," he said. "It's going to take a lot of dollars."
Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said he opposes any plan to empty the state's youth prisons. The correctional officers, whose jobs are at stake, have taken the blame for failures in state corrections, he said.
"The idea of completely dissolving it is not only premature, it's a bad decision," Corcoran said.
The Oakland-based civil rights organization Books Not Bars has been at the forefront of calls to close the youth prisons. Using community centers, juveniles can be closer to their families, said Jakada Imani, a spokesman for the organization.
Imani said Lieber's bill is a sign that people are finally beginning to listen. The counties may not be equipped right now to take back wards from the state, but money from the state eventually would improve local services, he said.
The state youth prison system has gotten worse amid efforts to bring reform, Imani said.
"It's hard to reform a dragon," Imani said. "You have to slay a dragon, and the Division of Juvenile Justice is a dragon."
Contact reporter Scott Smith at (209) 546-8296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog.