Activists Still Push to Close California’s Youth Prisons

Gov. Jerry Brown has a revised plan to reform the state's youth prisons. But will it go anywhere?

By Thoai Lu Mar 08, 2011

California Governor Jerry Brown recently scratched a proposal to shut down California’s youth prisons. The plan had been applauded by longtime prison reform groups and was just one part of Brown’s recommendations for eliminating the state’s $28 billion budget shortfall. According to San Francisco Chronicle, the Democratic governor’s plan, known as realignment, would "let counties decide once a year if they want to contract with juvenile justice to house some offenders."

But while a complete overhaul may be off the table, activists are still hopeful that they can institute meaningful reforms in one of the nation’s largest prison system for young people. 

Reports and videos have shown that many are often subjected to physical violence, neglect and sexual assault. Advocates point out that it’s communities of color who suffer most from this reported abuse. The Ella Baker Center, a Bay Area-based prison reform group, has highlighted the youth prison systems racial disparities. "Of the 1,950 youth in DJJ prisons as of July 2008, 87% are young people of color." African-Americans constitute 31 percent of the kids in DJJ while Latinos make up 55 percent.

Recent efforts to reform the state’s youth prison system have proven somewhat successful; the number of inmates has gone down from 4,400 in 2003 to 1,250 in 2010, according to California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s website. 

Brown’s plan would have shut down the state’s remaining five youth prison facilities.  Young people convicted of criminal offenses would instead have been sent to county facilities, which some supporters see as more effective deterrents. 

Abel Habtegeorgis, Media Relations Manager at the Ella Baker Center, contends that while his group had supported Brown’s plan to close the prisons, their course of action isn’t changing because of Brown’s reversal.

"[Brown] gotten some pressure from folks who have interests in keeping youth prisons open, like special interest groups," Habtegeorgis told Colorlines. "He’s trying to compromise to keep certain facilities open, but also allow counties to have a financial incentive to keep youth in their county lines."

Others also think it wise to transition to more locally-based alternatives.

"What I think will happen is that counties will get the money and most of them will not want to give it back to DJJ," Dan Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco told the Bay Citizen. "it might force the state to be more competitive and clean its act up." 

Habtegeorgis compares the DJJ system to poison. "Counties have a better understanding of the demographics," he said. "If you hire counselors, teachers, guards from the local area, they know the culture of that area.  If families can’t communicate with youth or vice-versa, they end up worse off.  Kids need to be held accountable, but that accountability needs to be appropriated."

Under realignment, the governor’s office seeks to lower government costs by allowing county governments to deliver more services.  Advocates of the new plan are concerned that without a state option, prosecutors would charge more juveniles as adults to keep them out of local facilities. 

Also, to address the concern of some serious, violent offenders ending up in county jails, Brown will add 40 more crimes to the eligibility list for state incarceration, including felony domestic violence, assaulting a police officer, and human trafficking. For the plan to take effect, voters have to approve an amendment to the state Constitution in June.