Juvenile justice an example of government closer to the people

150 150 Tyche Hendricks

The KQED California Report’s Governing California series takes a closer look at an area where the state has already begun realigning services to see if moving government closer to the people has improved the lives of kids going through the juvenile justice system and the quality of life for communities that are home to young offenders.

Gov. Jerry Brown has talked a lot in recent months about “moving government closer to the people.” One place where that’s already well under way is juvenile justice. But with realignment – as the state-to-local shift is known – the devil is in the details. In a pair of radio features — part of our ongoing series Governing California: Making Sense of Our State of Disarray – The California Report looks at the promise, and the pitfalls, of making that shift.

California’s state-run youth correctional facilities have had a troubled history. A decade ago, lawsuits charged the state with subjecting juvenile inmates to miserable conditions and frequent abuses. A 2004 settlement forced dramatic changes and in the years since, California’s state detention centers have improved, and most young offenders are now handled at the county level.

Gov. Jerry Brown suggested earlier this year that California become the first state in the nation to shut its youth correctional system completely and turn over the remaining inmates, known as wards in the juvenile justice system, to the custody of counties. Just 1,200 wards remain in state detention – down from 10,000 fifteen years ago.

The state’s five juvenile lock-ups now provide a full range of rehabilitative services – including mental health and substance abuse counseling, education and vocational training.  But those wrap-around services come at a price, roughly $225,000 per inmate each year.

Brown wanted to slash that cost – a couple of hundred million dollars – out of the state’s general fund obligations by turning over full responsibility for juvenile justice to California’s 58 counties.

As Louis Freedberg reports in our first story, county governments have pushed back, saying they can’t cope with the most violent offenders, the ones the state now handles. Brown responded with a compromise: allow counties to take the money the state now spends and handle their toughest offenders locally – or pay the state to do it for them. Last week the legislature approved that plan.

But the plan depends on generating new revenue for the counties through a package of tax extensions that Brown hopes to put before voters in June. And the tax plan is stalled in the legislature, lacking the two-thirds vote needed to put the measure on a special election ballot.

In part two, The California Report’s Sarah Varney examines one critical element of rehabilitating youngsters who have run afoul of the law: mental health care. In Los Angeles County – with the state’s largest juvenile case load – Varney finds that some young offenders are getting intensive and effective treatment. But many kids still fall through the cracks.

If California is to avoid meting out an uneven “justice by geography,” local governments will likely need sufficient resources to handle new cases, a willingness to break through bureaucracy and learn from the best practices of the most innovative counties, and, some say, at least a little continuing involvement by the state.

Check out the stories March 23 and 24 at www.californiareport.org.

The California Report is a daily, state-wide radio program, produced by KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. The Governing California juvenile justice series was produced in collaboration with California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Tyche Hendricks is project editor for The California Report.


Tyche Hendricks

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