After years of struggling to reform California’s troubled juvenile justice system, the legislature agreed on a potentially historic realignment that would slash by half the number of youths in juvenile prisons and place the inmates in their home counties, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. The bill – passed on Tuesday along with the long-delayed state budget – is being celebrated by experts as a potential turning point for a system long mired in despair and controversy.
The measure is designed to shrink the troubled state juvenile prison system nearly out of existence. All but the most violent youths convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder and certain types of sexual assault, would be dealt with in their home counties. The counties generally operate an array of programs, ranging from camps where some youth offenders are incarcerated and treated, to strict after-school programs providing various forms of education, therapy and family treatment. “We’ve been working on this for 20 years, some of us,” said David Steinhart, executive director of the Commonweal’s Juvenile Justice Program in San Francisco, a key player in negotiating elements of the program. “There are bugs that need to be worked out, but we’ve climbed the mountain. It’s a major milestone.” The network of eight juvenile prisons operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice has gone from 10,000 wards, as inmates are known, a decade ago to fewer than 2,600 now. “It’s the biggest and most profound development for juveniles in California since the 1970s,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. “This is an opportunity we haven’t seen for many, many years.”