Can young felons be dumped on the counties?
A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse
Richard Krupp, Ph.D.
One of the key elements to the Governor’s budget proposals impacting the prison system includes the elimination of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and having the counties manage this population. The Sacramento Bee indicates, “County district attorneys, probation officials, police chiefs, sheriffs, and advocates for young criminals all express skepticism about the plan to have counties take over the state’s entire juvenile justice system.” The article describes these youthful offenders as victims of violence.
Having worked in the former California Youth Authority back in the 1970’s, I recall the institutions were filled with violent criminals who frequently attacked staff as well as other wards. Gone are the days when the institutions housed bicycle thieves from small counties; only violent wards are left. During the short time I worked at the Youth Training School I made the list of staff assaults three times; almost being killed on one occasion. It may be helpful to take a look at the group that is being considered for lower level management.
Two-thirds of the wards in the DJJ institutions are 18 years of age or more. In fact, DJJ commitments can stay up to the age of 25 or longer. Almost twenty percent are over the age of 21. The most recent ward population information from December 31, 2010 shows that of the 1332 wards in DJJ institutions, 96% are there following commitments for violent offenses, and of the 1509 on parole, 95% are violent offenders. Typically they serve about six years for Murder, two for Robbery, and about four for Sex offenses.
Division of Juvenile Justice Population Breakdown
|Offense||In Facility||On Parole||Total|
*Includes First Degree Burglary
Of the more than 2800 offenders in DJJ institutions and on parole about 25% are repeat offenders. This represents about 3000 members of the community who are victims of violence inflicted by these offenders. It is not likely to matter to the victims whether the person who committed the violent act was “youthful.” The devastation to the victims should be the primary concern, not the needs of the criminals. Keeping youthful criminals incarcerated as long as necessary to protect the community needs to be at the top of the list of priorities.
How does California compare to other states regarding youthful offender incarceration? It is difficult to find precise comparisons. Definitions of youth and types of incarceration vary by state. According to, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement report, there were over 28,000 committed youth in state facilities in the United States in 2006.
Facility Operation for Committed Residents by State, 2006 (selected states)
|Committed youth||Facility Operation|
|Private facility — placing agency|
|State of Offense||Total||State facility||Local facility||Private total||State||Local|
When Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act in 2002, the legislation required States and territories eliminate the practice of detaining or confining juveniles—whether non-offenders, status offenders, or delinquents—in jails, lockups, or other institutions in which they might have sight or sound contact with detained or incarcerated adults. California Welfare and Institutions Code Section 208 addresses this issue. This became a problem in the California prison system when adult inmates were moved to the Heman G. Stark facility following a riot at the California Institution for Men in 2009. If the counties are responsible for housing their own juvenile offenders, they may have problems placing these violent inmates in appropriate housing. The local facilities may not be secure enough and the more secure facilities may not meet the “sight and sound” requirements.
The commitment county distribution of wards currently in DJJ institutions may present additional problems. It may not be practical for counties with small numbers of juvenile offenders to have facilities that will meet the security and “sight and sound” requirements. According to county DJJ commitment information as of the end of 2010:
- 13 have no DJJ wards
- 22 have less than 10
- 11 have 11-49
- 10 have 50-99
- 2 have 100+
One option might be to have the state turn over some of the DJJ institutions to the counties. Any plans to relinquish these institutions to the Federal Receiver should be scrapped. Secure housing could be managed by groups of counties through an association or contract arrangement. The impact of current lawsuits, Farrell, and L.H., etc would have to be examined. These cases have cost the taxpayers more than $13,000,000 with attorney fees as high as $418 per hour, not to mention various consultant fees. Parole supervision requirements would also need to be examined.
The age of majority in California and 46 other states is 18. At the age of 18 many young men and women join the military service. This is also the age at which a young adult is no longer eligible for the foster care program. Evidently California is the only state to include “youthful” offenders up to the age of 25 in our state level of juvenile justice system, DJJ. Most other states have established an age limit cap at either 18 or 21 years of age. More than 30 states extend juvenile court jurisdiction until the age of 21.
I recommend that California facilitates legislation that establishes the upper age limit for commitment to the juvenile justice system state or county at 18. The remaining youthful offenders in the state system would be sent back to the county of commitment. In a case where a DJJ commitment is found to dangerous to be managed at the county level that county would have two options they could contract with a county that has physical plant, staffing levels and programs to manage the offender or send the offender back to the court of commitment and on to state prison for management and programming. It should be noted that the last major institution that was built by CDCR, Kern Valley State Prison, designed a portion of a facility to provide the appropriate level of sight and sound separation from the adult population.
Whether shipping responsibility for the DJJ offenders to the counties would save any money for the taxpayers is uncertain. Whether the taxpayers would be any safer is also uncertain. We’ll just have to adjust.