If the juvenile justice system is broken, then why don’t we fix it?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Photo courtesy of Flickr user 710928003

Most business owners would consider closing shop if, year after year, their business achieved just 20 percent of its target goals. So then why does the state of California continue to fund the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) when lately, about 80 percent of its first offenders consistently return for a second stay?

With scarce resources caused by a state budget deficit that has ballooned to $16 billion and devastating trigger cuts on the horizon, program performance should be taken into account during budget deliberations. Ultimately, California cannot afford to continue financing programs or departments that severely underperform, like the DJF, without holding them accountable to results. 

In response to pressure exerted by probation chiefs, district attorneys and prison guards, Governor Brown reversed his January budget proposal for full juvenile justice realignment in his May budget revision.

Rather than phase out the state’s youth prison system, DJF’s doors would remain open but counties would be required to pay $24,000 for each juvenile inmate, or “ward,” housed by the state starting on July 1, 2012. The shift of juvenile parolees to the counties would begin a year earlier in 2013, and the maximum age of offenders housed in state facilities would drop from 25 to 23.  

This latest plan would result in a general fund savings of $24.8 million, sparing the DJF the additional $67.7 million in cuts estimated in the original proposal.  

When one sector, or slice, of the budget “pie” is protected, additional funding must be carved out from another. In this instance, the proposed foregone general fund savings would result in even deeper cuts to other state services such as education, CalWorks, and MediCal.

It is time to start measuring outcomes in order to improve or eliminate statewide programs that are not working so money is reallocated to programs that are better suited to achieve the same goal. In this case, many criminal justice experts believe that counties, with guaranteed additional funding, are in a better position to effectively rehabilitate and reintegrate violent juvenile offenders. 

If the DJF is incapable of significantly lowering the number of youth that return to detention centers after a first offense, the state should be asking “why?” before cutting the next check.


Alexandra Bjerg

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