California to End Funding of Child Prisons: A Window of Opportunity

In 1989, California was spending $600 million to supervise the 23,000 children under the control of California Youth Authority (CYA).  Two thirds of those children were taken from the home and placed in a variety of scenarios, from group homes to cages, and a consensus grew that this was overly expensive; furthermore, the decisions on what to do with a child (generally between ages 8 and 18) was often driven by costs rather than any rehabilitative plan.  Finally, although juvenile crime rates had been going down for years, the number of commitments and length of sentences resulted in drastic overcrowding of the children’s prisons.  (See: Legislative Analyst’s Office 1989 report, pages 319-336).

In 2011, what has changed?  California arrests 225,000 children, releases 130,000 from state and county prisons per year, and incarcerates at a rate more than double the national average.  The state stepped in to help the counties, who have traditionally been in charge of (legally and financially) incarcerating these youths. The state is poised to close up shop on the Department of Juvenile Justice, which now imprisons 1,100 youth (about 1% of all juvenile prisoners), and had been spending over $400 million per year.  They are essentially telling the counties: pay $125,000 per child to keep them in a prison cell, or you take them.  The DJJ has been operating three “reception centers,” five prisons and two work camps, for “violent” children, with authority until the age of 25.  Most are between 13 and 25, with an average age of 19, serving an average sentence of 3 years.  The population is 90% Black and Latino, with nearly a third coming from L.A. county.  This is why many voices have spoken out against this move, arguing that these people will merely be transferred into the adult prisons.  The argument is that the DJJ prisoners will be deprived of rehabilitative services in the adult prisons; with the extreme position that those under 18 will be mixed with adults.

When it comes to government programs, one must first put on their Cynic Goggles.  After a full assessment of “what’s in it for you, for me, for the other guy,” then a more idealistic analysis can take place.  Prisons are a government program, with the bulk of funds paying people’s salaries, paying construction companies, and paying companies that manufacture tasers, kevlar vests, and similar items.  The prisoners are merely numbers reflecting expansion of budgets.  Anyone wearing their Cynic Goggles will first ask: “Who loses in a reduction of prison budgets?”  After identifying those people, one can put their defense of the prison in perspective.

It can be difficult to publicly defend enhanced punishment of children… in 2012.  In 1990, when building youth prisons was in vogue, politicians and commentators rallied around (now debunked) predictions by self-styled criminologists like James Fox and John Dilulio, who whipped others into a frenzy over the “Juvenile Super-Predators” that never came.  Dilulio, a long-time White House employee, is ironically now part of the conservative group “Right on Crime”- which serves as a group confession that the War on Drugs was (and is) an abysmal failure that must be stopped.  Corporations like GEO, however, the world’s largest prison firm, deserve some morbid credit for bluntness and lack of shame.  For example, in their 2008 shareholder’s report they noted how any changes in drug and immigration policy will affect demand for their cages.  Therefore, they lobby hard to increase all uses of prisons… and the shift from public prisons to the corporate-owned.

In this latest scenario, the defenders of California’s juvenile budget include the counties, district attorneys, and probation chiefs.  Among the concerns they stated in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown: this population “is decidedly unfit” for county facilities, “as these youth possess complex criminal profiles often accompanied by significant mental health, behavioral and treatment needs.”  These law enforcement entities claim that the serious offenders would adversely impact the less-serious ones.  The fallacy of this, among several, is that the complex human profiles of any prisoner, particularly children, cannot be simplified by the crime committed.

Typically, agents of the criminal justice system will have thick folders regarding a prisoner that were created through a few hours of interviews and assessments.  The assessors are universally not trusted, and overwhelmingly have little (if any) personal experience regarding the lives and environment of their prisoners.  Any commentary on “rehabilitation,” by law enforcement (or a county concerned about their budget) should be taken with a grain of salt.  It should not be surprising to see the DJJ prison guards take a similar stance, for fear that the state will close down the youth facilities if the counties don’t foot the bill.

Finding the funds to cage children, or adults, is not the only option.  Let us not forget that California is under a U.S. Supreme Court order to drastically reduce it’s adult prisoner population within the next two years.  Shifting 1000 young people into adult prisons will slightly offset gains made thus far, as Gov. Brown’s staff scrambles to move tens of thousands of adults into county jails.  Technically, this is reducing the “state” prison population… but there is no desire to reduce the population of prisoners in the state.  Likewise with the children.  There is an opportunity to reduce the number of incarcerated youth, and true advocates need to seize this opportunity.

I expect to hear and read about the rehabilitation industry fighting to keep these prisons funded, and fund the staff that serves the prisons.  Without prisoners, they may find it difficult to justify their own paychecks, their own departments, and their own organizations.  Such turmoil should be welcomed by anti-prison advocates, while the self-serving commentary of pro-prison voices should be rejected.  One should check the track record of how well the government and their service providers have been meeting the mental, emotional, and educational needs of children in prison… and of adults in prison.  Even take a look at their typical advocacy against the mental, emotional, economic, and educational needs of the formerly incarcerated.  They are akin to those who lecture about the sanctity of a fetus, then abandon the child once born.  Are the defenders of DJJ money talking about the “rehabilitation” that amounts to 90% of released youth ending up in adult prison?  Or studies showing that children with mental health issues got worse in prison (surprise) rather than better.

It is safe to say that a 90% failure rate is essentially a total success, if one’s goal is to continue children into a life of incarceration.

Are prison budgets as holy as social security?  They have risen at a far faster pace, and many people have staked their financial stability to them.  As the free market capitalists would say: they made a bad investment.  Personally, I am not so troubled by the possible financial bankruptcy due to prisons, particularly child prisons.  The possible moral bankruptcy, however, runs much deeper than any bottom line.

About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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