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Gov. Brown Scratches Plan to Eliminate Youth Prisons

Under revised proposal, counties could pay the state to house violent young offenders

Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial plan to shut down California’s youth prison system came to a screeching halt Monday when he presented a revised budget proposal allowing counties to continue sending their violent youth offenders to state correctional institutions.

Brown’s original proposal called for the elimination of the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, requiring counties to house and treat juvenile offenders locally.

Under both versions of the proposal, California’s 58 counties would split $242 million in state money — the annual budget for DJJ — to treat juvenile offenders at the local level. But the revised budget gives counties the option of paying the state to house their violent youth inside DJJ facilities at the state’s current cost per ward: $200,000 annually.

Counties would have two options: send all of their violent youth offenders to DJJ or none of them. 

“What I think will happen is that the counties will get the money and most of them will not want to give it back to DJJ,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. Macallair has called for the closure of DJJ for years, citing abusive conditions and crumbling infrastructure. Although Brown's new proposal stops short of a complete shutdown, Macallair sees it as a positive step. “It might force the state to be more competitive and clean its act up,” he said.

The cost of incarcerating one youth offender at the county level ranges from $25,000 to $90,000 a year, depending on the county and the needs of the offender. Macallair doubts that many counties will want to pay several times that rate to send youth to the state.

“I think now we start working with the counties to build the most modernized facilities,” he said.

Despite the dwindling DJJ population — the number of inmates has shrunk to 1,300 from 10,000 in 1996 — the debate over whether to close the five remaining state-run facilities has been fierce. The governor amended his juvenile justice plan in response to youth advocates and lobbying groups, such as the Chief Probation Officers of California, who argued that the counties were not equipped to absorb the current DJJ population and characterized the plan as a threat to public safety.

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