Joaquin E. DiazDeLeon, a former Fresno gang member, spent two years inside California’s juvenile prison system. What he found there, he said, was no better than the streets he came from.
Instead of rehabilitating young offenders, he said, correctional officers spent most of their time separating rival gangs. Violence was so pervasive, he said, that he kept his gang affiliation just to protect himself.
“Basically you’re being thrown in a box and expected to change,” said DiazDeLeon, 21, now a student at City College of San Francisco.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent proposal to eliminate California’s Division of Juvenile Justice was billed as a way to cut $242 million from the state budget. It was also the culmination of a decade-long effort to shut the state’s troubled youth prison system, which for years has been plagued by violence, abuse and decaying facilities.
Much of that effort has been centered in the Bay Area after accusations of abuse and neglect at the institutions surfaced in a 2003 Alameda County lawsuit. In recent years, some local judges often refused to send young offenders to state institutions, preferring to confine them in county facilities regarded as safer and more effective.
Brown’s initiative would take that unofficial policy further. It would scrap the state juvenile justice system and shift responsibility for confining the most violent young offenders to the local level, where they are nearer to family and have more community treatment options. The move would affect the 1,300 youths in state care, down from 10,000 in 1996.
Even among critics of the Division of Juvenile Justice, the proposed shift has set off a new debate over whether counties are equipped to handle an influx of severely troubled young people.
“I’m disgusted with myself to think of defending DJJ with all the things that have happened over the years,” said Sue Burrell, a lawyer at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, “but if you ask me right now, I would opt for keeping a very, very small DJJ open and not throwing the kids to the wolves.”
Burrell said she was concerned that prosecutors might see counties as unfit to handle serious offenders and thus try many juveniles as adults, forcing teenagers into adult prisons.
Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, said that keeping young offenders at the county level might offer them fewer rehabilitation options.
“I would bet that those kids would end up in juvenile hall, in isolation, getting fewer services,” Krisberg said. “I don’t think we can shut down the entire state system.”
But Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit group in San Francisco, said he believed young offenders could receive better support at the local level. “In county juvenile halls, you don’t have the entrenched gang culture and violence you have at the state youth authority,” Macallair said. “The counties can offer a continuum of options — maximum security, minimum security, intensive services in the community — that the state could never come close to matching.”
Macallair, who has called the state institutions “relics of the 19th century,” agreed that the proposed state closings presented challenges, but he said too much hand-wringing would keep resources at the state level and prevent needed changes.
“The state system is not set up for major change,” he said. “If the money won’t be flowing to counties, counties won’t get any better, and you’ll be left with the status quo.”
For years, the Division of Juvenile Justice has been in steady decline. The Preston Youth Correctional Facility, an hour northeast of Stockton, is scheduled to be shut down by June. It will be the ninth state youth detention facility to close since 2002. Only four will remain.
The population of young offenders in state care has plummeted since 1996, to 1,300 from 10,000, because of lower crime rates and laws mandating that only the most serious offenders remain in state custody. The vast majority of young offenders are held at county facilities.
DiazDeLeon, who was first arrested at 14 on a charge of attempted burglary, agrees with those who say the California youth justice system is obsolete.
“Kids are broken, kids are abused” coming into the state facilities, he said. “I was an abused child growing up into a wounded man.”
DiazDeLeon said the institution’s need to constantly quell the threat of violence meant he had essentially been left to rehabilitate himself.
“The correctional officers’ job was to keep control of the facility,” he said. “When I was there, they were told to do rehabilitation, but they didn’t fully engage in that because they didn’t really believe rehabilitation was possible for some of the young men there.”
If the counties are going to do better than the state, they will need more money and rehabilitation services to deal with young people for whom violence is common, said Donna Hitchens, a retired San Francisco judge who said she was among those who tried to avoid sending young offenders to state institutions.
“On a policy level, it’s a great idea,” Hitchens said. “But long-term treatment requires really strong programs in a secure setting, and a campus environment since they’re going to be there for so long.”
A memo released last week by the Chief Probation Officers of California after the Brown proposal was announced stated that county probation departments were ready to participate in the governor’s plan — with one major caveat. “We must be sure we can afford the new responsibilities the state contemplates for local probation,” the memo said.
Brown intends to compensate counties by extending existing sales tax and vehicle license fees, according to the California Department of Finance. The state’s 58 county probation departments would split $242 million in state money over the next four years.
In the 2003 Alameda County lawsuit, Judge Jon Tigar of Superior Court found that conditions at state youth institutions were unsafe and not conducive to rehabilitation. The court ordered the Division of Juvenile Justice to provide young offenders with vastly improved facilities, education and treatment programs.
In an interview before the announcement of Brown’s plan, a spokesman for the division, Bill Sessa, said that the state was in 85 percent compliance with the court’s mandates and that more changes were in progress.
“What may have been true more than a decade ago totally mischaracterizes the reality of the Division of Juvenile Justice today,” Sessa said.
He said he had no comment on Brown’s proposal to eliminate the Division of Juvenile Justice.
Based on his own experience incarcerated at state and county facilities, DiazDeLeon said counties should embrace the inevitable.
“I think DJJ can be replaced with something better within counties,” DiazDeLeon said. “Their model is outdated. You’re already coming from a dysfunctional background and going into dysfunctional system. What do you expect?”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.