LOS ANGELES ( – Youth organizations, lawyers, justice advocates and parents of incarcerated children increased demand for the permanent closure of the California Division of Juvenile Justice during a recent hearing that probed ways to revamp the system and reasons why the groups believe it is broken.

The State Commission on Juvenile Justice intends to use the testimony gathered Sept. 25 to create a Juvenile Justice Operational Master Plan for operating the system. Its Master Plan report is due for release early next year.

According to the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), a support and advocacy group for children of incarcerated parents, the hearing was the culmination of five years of intense, direct action and organizing against the system.


“We want the closure of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) because, especially for youth in L.A. County, who are 40 percent of the DJJ population, even though only 27 percent of the state population, most of those youth go way far to Northern California and their families can’t visit them on a regular basis,” said Kim McGill, YJC spokesperson.

“It’s too expensive, so many youth from L.A. and Southern California go months and months, sometimes years without visits and that tears down family unity and the ability for young people to really come home,” Ms. McGill added.

The YJC has been pushing for the DJJ to be replaced by county-based youth development centers, and others agreed. According to the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan and independent state agency, which was developed in 1962 to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs, these county-run, state-funded regional rehabilitative facilities would serve high-risk, high-need juvenile offenders and eventually, eliminate state operations.

In its report, “Juvenile Justice Reform: Realigning Responsibilities,” the Hoover Commission recommended consolidating all California juvenile justice operations into an Office of Juvenile Justice. The new office would operate outside of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and combine activities of the chief deputy secretary of juvenile justice and the juvenile justice grants administration and oversight.

According to the commission, part of the problem is that the state spends half a billion dollars a year on a youth offender population that has declined from 10,000 in state facilities a decade ago to less than 2,000 today. For the 2008-09 fiscal year, that means spending approximately $252,000 a youth per year.

“This startling figure reflects the overhead expenses of a system built to serve a far larger population, the cost of reforms required under a court-supervised consent decree and the complex needs of these seriously troubled youth,” the report read.

The decline in the number of youth offenders on the state level stems from landmark legislation (SB 81) that shifted responsibility for all but the most serious and violent offenders from the state to the counties, the commission noted.

To ensure progress, the commission recommended that the state create one funding stream to oversee its three major juvenile offender grant programs, extend sunset provisions for the State Commission on Juvenile Justice to 2010 to assist counties with implementing the Master Plan, and eliminate the state juvenile justice operations by 2011.

At press time, a DJJ representative was seeking a spokesperson to respond to calls for its elimination.

Meanwhile, the representative said, the DJJ has already closed two facilities–Dewitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, and El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility, in Paso Robles–due to the shifts under SB 81.

The DJJ is also in the process of implementing significant reforms to provide enhanced treatment services for youth, due to a 2004 lawsuit (Farrell v. Allen (now Tilton)) over conditions within the California Youth Authority.

A coalition of lawyers from Disability Rights Advocates, Latham & Watkins, Prison Law Office, and Jones Day, LLP, filed a taxpayer action on behalf of Margaret Farrell. She sued Walter Allen, III, then-director of the now defunct California Youth Authority, for using taxpayers’ money for policies, practices and procedures that she alleged furthered illegal conditions within the authority.

The case resulted in a consent decree and the youth authority’s promise to overhaul the system with regard to, among other things, protecting vulnerable wards from dangerous youth, providing intensive treatment to youth with mental illness, and developing a plan to treat and manage youth on suicide watch and with acute psychiatric needs.

The California Youth Authority was created in 1941 but began operating reform schools in 1943. Under a massive reorganization of California Corrections in 2005, its name was changed to the Juvenile Justice Division.

Ms. McGill said that L.A. County could easily build the youth development agencies and still secure young people who need a space for real rehabilitation in the form of education, art, history and leadership development.

“We say new name, same pain, because they changed it to the Juvenile Justice Division, but really they had made little changes. Then, because of all of the pressure brought down on them, they have made some changes in the facilities. They now spend about $161,000 a year per young person so there’s been some improvements to education and conditions,” Ms. McGill said.