April 30, 2004


A Judge’s View: Reforming California’s Troubled Juvenile Justice System

By Judge Leonard Edwards

No one could watch the recently released videotaped beating of a youth in the “care” of the California Youth Authority without revulsion. The beating, following a rash of highly publicized scandals plaguing California’s juvenile justice system — from suicides to reports of youths being held in cages — is prompting citizens and policy makers nationwide to ask what suddenly went wrong and what can be done to reform juvenile institutions.

Unfortunately, these are the wrong questions. The history of large, prison-like institutions for young people is a cyclical one in which the merry-go-round of abuse, public scandal, outraged cries for reform, temporary calm, entropy and abuse circles around every few years. Looking for ways to build a better mousetrap by reforming this 19th century model of juvenile prisons will only lead to more frustrated policy makers, angry citizens and abused young people.

That’s because, after more than 30 years of experience in juvenile justice, it is my conclusion that these large, youth lock-ups don’t work and can’t be fixed. Congregate care for kids makes them worse, not better.

Obviously, some young law-violators need to be held in locked custody for our protection and theirs. But we lock up too many youth in California and other states, and the lock-up is making them worse. California has the second highest juvenile incarceration rate in the country, behind only Louisiana, which is currently reducing its incarcerated youth population due to similar scandals in its youth prisons. Moreover, while there will always be a need for locked custody for certain young people, that does not mean that the state needs to rely upon large congregate care facilities in which hundreds of delinquent youth are confined under one, crime-producing roof.

Fortunately, there is a better way than relying on an outmoded, institution-based system. California’s leaders need only take three decisive steps:

First, the state needs to substantially reduce the number of young people it incarcerates to a manageable level. About half of the youth currently incarcerated in California could be served in rigorous, carefully monitored community programs where not only is abuse less common, but the potential for rehabilitation is much greater.

Second, the governor and legislature need to reallocate a portion of the Youth Authority’s $385 million to help fund the creation of a continuum of care capable of working with these young people in their communities. These newly funded programs should be rigorous enough to maintain public safety, and should tap into local creativity throughout the state, as opposed to relying on a centralized state bureaucracy to meet the diverse needs of California’s youth. For the $80,000 per youth per year that is now spent on incarceration, California’s leaders should have no problem funding a network of proven programs throughout the state that can address both public safety and rehabilitation. Intensive wrap-around service programs, for example, have proven successful in a number of jurisdictions across the country.

One way some counties may want to accomplish this is through “Re-entry Courts” in which a juvenile court judge monitors the youths’ progress during and after their confinement, creating more seamless oversight of the youths’ movement through the system. This is similar to the highly successful drug courts where continuous contact between a client and the judge is the hallmark of positive outcomes. Re-entry Courts are being effectively utilized in a number of jurisdictions and should be instituted in California.

Third, and finally, for the 2,000 or so youth who will continue to need to be held in locked custody, state policy makers should develop a three-year plan to replace all the state’s large institutions with locked facilities no larger than 40 beds and no further than two hours’ drive from the youths’ homes, preferably closer. After Attorney General John Ashcroft’s home state of Missouri closed all of its large institutions and moved its youth into small, home-like rehabilitative facilities, re-offense rates among its delinquent youth population plummeted, as did complaints about abuse.

After a series of expert reports were released chronicling the Youth Authority’s scandalous conditions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was right to immediately empanel a task force to examine the system’s problems and come up with solutions. That committee, the governor, and the legislature now need to act forcefully, not just to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship, but to build California the kind of juvenile justice system it deserves. Governors across the country who seek more compassionate and effective juvenile justice must also act now, before the next scandal comes from within the walls of their own youth prisons.

Judge Leonard Edwards is a Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County. He was named Jurist of the Year by the California Judicial Council for 2004.

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