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Counties Differ Radically on Handling of Juvenile Offenders

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New study shows that a few counties, including Alameda, account for most of the state's youth prison costs

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed realignment of the state’s juvenile prison system, which aims to save money by placing more youth in county programs, has revealed great disparities between counties’ ability handle their most violent young offenders, according to a new report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco nonprofit.

While some of the state’s 58 counties treat most of their high-level offenders in local programs, others ship large numbers of troubled youth to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), usually at more than twice the cost of keeping them locally. The counties that send the most kids to state facilities are costing statewide taxpayers millions of dollars a year, the study shows.

Currently, counties pay just a small portion of the true cost of incarcerating youth at state institutions, while statewide taxpayers shoulder the rest, according to the new study.

For example, in December 2010, five counties, including Alameda, accounted for 56.1 percent of the statewide tax burden of utilizing state-run youth detention centers, the study shows. Alameda spent only $28,692 to keep 66 youth at DJJ that month, while taxpayers across the state picked up the remaining $1,207,224 it cost to house them.

Taxpayers spent a total of $20,774,195 to incarcerate youth in DJJ in December; the counties paid $535,993.

“Taxpayers from self reliant counties, their money is going to DJJ to allow counties to remain state-dependant,” said Selena Teji, who co-authored the study. “While DJJ exists, there is no incentive for counties that are used to a culture of institutionalization to develop new programs.”

That could change if the governor’s realignment becomes law.

In January, Brown released a budget proposal that would have eliminated the state’s famously troubled youth prison system and required counties to house and treat all youth offenders locally. While some county officials expressed enthusiasm over keeping young offenders close to home, where they often have access to a broader range of services, others said their counties are not equipped to handle violent youth, who might suffer from mental health disorders. Blowback from interest groups, such as the Chief Probation Officers of California, forced Brown to revise his proposal.

Under both versions of the plan, California’s 58 counties would split $242 million in state funding to strengthen local programs. But the revised proposal keeps the state system open and gives counties the option of paying the money back to house offenders inside DJJ facilities at the current cost per ward: well over $200,000 annually.

Faced with such a steep rate hike, state-reliant counties would have to decide whether to forfeit the proposed state funding in order to continue sending youth to DJJ, or spend the money to strengthen local programs, in some cases from scratch.

“It’s going to be the state-dependent counties that really send a lot of kids there that are going to be in a dilemma because they haven’t invested in developing these programs,” Teji said.

Most experts agree that each county would be affected differently by the realignment.

“Some counties don’t have any camps or ranches,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “Some don’t even have a juvenile hall, so they don’t have many choices.”

Brown’s current plan would require counties to treat all of their youth locally or contract with the state each year to send all of their high-level offenders to DJJ. That caveat is a point of contention for advocates that want to see stronger local programs that provide better outcomes for kids.

“From my conversations in Sacramento, nobody is going to support that all or nothing plan,” Burrell said. “With the buyback, they need also to be giving counties funding because real goal is build a county continuum that can support higher level offenders.”

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