Originally posted at the Capitol Weekly.
By Samantha Gallegos

While public attention has focused in recent years on startling changes in California’s prison system, the transformation of the youth correctional system has been even more dramatic.

California, which just a few years ago had 11 state juvenile prisons, now has three. The number of youth offenders sent to state lockups has dropped by 90 percent during the past two decades, down from about 10,000 in 1996 to less than 800 today. Those remaining in state custody represent the most hard-core young offenders.

“Youth crime in California is at a 40-year low. Looking at the statistics you could argue this is the best-behaved generation on record. Now why that is, we don’t know,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Sociologists and criminologists haven’t explained it; all we know is that it’s happening.”

Why youth crime rates have taken such a hefty dip isn’t clear, and there are disputes over the accuracy of crime-linked statistics. But a combination of many recent changes in correction’s systematic operations could provide an indicator. Nationwide, adolescents are recorded to be committing fewer crimes than at any time in recent decades.

Under the state’s realignment program pushed by Gov. Brown and approved in 2011, local authorities have taken over the custody of some state inmates and in return get compensated through the state. Realignment allowed the state to cut the number of inmates in state custody to meet the demands of federal court orders and shifted authority – and resources – to the locals, a two-pronged goal of the governor.

State adult inmates weren’t the only ones in play: Juvenile offenders also were affected and local corrections officials are trying new methods. Their approach has become more tailored to the level of the juvenile’s offense, with a stronger push toward rehabilitation and treatment.

“Evidence shows the more attention you give to the lowest risk offender, the worse off they’re going to be,” said Scott Ball, Merced County’s chief probation officer. “Because one, the lowest risk offender probably doesn’t need as much attention and two, you’re going to miss other big offenders.”

“The juvenile justice division has spent the better part of the last 15 years going through a reform for the betterment of juveniles,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who has experience with youth corrections. In part, that reform was driven by the courts.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Farrell v. Allen, a landmark lawsuit filed against the California Youth Authority – the former name of the state’s youth correctional system – contending that “inhumane conditions” were rife in California’s juvenile penitentiaries. The suit was filed by a legal coalition that included Disability Rights Advocates, an Oakland-based nonprofit legal center, and the Prison Law Office.

The suit alleged that “rehabilitation is impossible when the classroom is a cage and wards live in constant fear of physical and sexual violence from CYA staff and other wards.” The action led to a sweeping consent decree in 2005, in which the CYA “agreed to a major overhaul of the entire CYA system to address the inhumane and illegal conditions of confinement which currently affect the over 5,000 young inmates (referred to as “wards”) in the CYA system,” according to a statement from Disability Rights Advocates.

Under the administration of Gov. Schwarzenegger, the state attempted to address these allegations through an overhaul of its juvenile justice system.

The agency was renamed, in 2005, the Division of Juvenile Justice and merged with the adult prison system, the CDCR.

But critics noted that this was hardly a solution to the deep-seated issues in the system.

In 2006, a panel of state-approved experts — known as the Safety and Welfare Planning Team — found the DJJ to be broken and still retained high levels of violence and fear.

“It was dysfunctional,” said Sessa. “We had 11 facilities, we had thousands of wards at varying degrees of criminality and varying degrees of violent behavior, all mixed together, and clearly there was a need for change.”

“There is a growing awareness around what the developmental needs of youth are,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director for the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. ”The fact is that the adolescent brain is different from an adult brain, that young people have the ability to change and to get their life on track—if they’re given the appropriate resources and encouragement.”

Research shows improvement in adolescent offenders is more likely when they’re near family and in their communities. In response, the Legislature altered the fee structure between state and county corrections.

Before, a county would pay a lower fee to send a juvenile to state facilities if they had committed a lower-level crime. Now, no matter what level the crime, a county pays $24,000 for sending a single offender to the state, unless they have ties to a gang.

The result, authorities say, is that more wards are retained at the local level, closer to their families.

The Legislature also enacted policies to more narrowly define what type of offender could be sent to the state level-juvenile justice system.

This policy shift has expanded juvenile corrections at the county level and allowed the state to close most of its youth penitentiaries.

There is an ongoing debate about whether counties are getting enough state funding to put these program reforms into practice. The counties say no, the state says yes.

“You never get enough from the state,” Ball said. “Basically what they do is they give you much less money to do a better job than they were doing, which costs a lot more money.”

According to the California Budget Project, the amount of money spent on state corrections has increased since the 2010-11 fiscal year and now totals about $7 billion. If realignment had not been approved, the state would have spent more on the same levels of service, the according to the CBP. The CBP is an independent, nonprofit fiscal research group that examines the state budget in terms of its impact on low- and moderate-income Californians and families.

The CBP also found counties receive less funding per year to house and supervise low-level offenders and parolees than what would have likely been spent by the state.

The decrease in funding, critics say, has translated into a rise in criminal activity related to gangs, particularly in the Central Valley.  Paradoxically, there also is a drop in the overall crime rate. So how are these facts reconciled?

“The crime rate going down is not necessarily indicative that the crimes are not being committed; it’s just that they’re not being pursued on a formal level,” said Joseph Mata, Probation Supervisor of the Gang Intervention and Suppression Unit in Kern County.

“Our petition desk and our juvenile investigations bureau is referring less cases to the DA based on our assessment criteria,” Officer Mata said. “The staffing in the juvenile DA’s office, they can only prosecute so many cases.”

Mata said the new structure of the correctional system has created a situation where insignificant crimes may not get filed on or deferred to a lesser sanction, which wouldn’t register on any crime data.

There could also be more significant charges being reduced to lesser charges in the interest of facilitating the process within the court system, which also would be reflected in data numbers said Mata.

“But we are having cases that do go down, they don’t get adjudicated and then some of those offenders do resurface as offenders later on. So it’s hard to, for me personally, it’s hard to relate the gang factor to the [youth] crime rate,” said Mata. Gangs are very aware of this situation and the multi-generational association within gangs enables them to game the system.

“Someone who’s an adult may operate through a juvenile, because they realize the consequences of their actions are going be a lot less,” Mata said.

Because of legislative changes in state law, youth offenders can’t be sent to state corrections at the same rate they could under the CYA system. Challenges, like the amount of beds a county can retain, pose other issues. “We have what 110-120 beds in our juvenile hall. For a county that has almost a million citizens that’s not a whole lot of bed space,” sad Mata. “Obviously the gang problem is escalating, and then to have the crime rate go down. It doesn’t seem like it makes sense.”

Gang affiliation is saturating the Central Valley, with Merced County correction officials citing about 80 percent of youth offenders having some affiliation with gangs and similar if not higher rates in Kern.

The DJJ appears effective in bringing down the number of youth offenders dealt with on the state level, but whether these offenders are truly being rehabilitated is uncertain.

Last month, 89 youth offenders in the DJJ high schools received their GEDs, adding to the state’s trend of increasing academic achievement — up 28 percent since the 2004-05 academic year.