UNDER THE COVER: Roiled by scandal, state tasked counties with incarcerating delinquents

Author’s note: In this week’s cover story, SN&R illustrates how county juvenile halls have become unofficial mental institutions for society’s most troubled youth. But how did it happen? In this installment, we examine the role that California’s juvenile corrections division played.

The writing has been on the wall for more than a decade now.

It was in 1999 that horrid media accounts of abuses within the state’s juvenile correctional institutions—wards forced into Fight Club-style battles in Chino, handcuffed around the clock in Paso Robles, or used as guinea pigs in psychotropic drug trials—propelled a systemwide review that unearthed more skeletons.

A proliferating number of audits, reports and legal rulings discovered widespread practices of excessive force and solitary confinement, as well as gaping lapses in the treatment of mental illness.

One former employee of what was then called the California Youth Authority told SN&R on background that staff at one institution regularly applied physical force to gain compliance from mentally ill wards or sedate them.

Because of commonplace horror stories like this, CYA entered into a consent decree in 2003 promising to remedy these issues, and rebranded itself the Division of Juvenile Justice. As recently as 2011, a federal judge ruled that DJJ was still falling short of its constitutional mandate to provide education and programming to detained wards, according to the Prison Law Office.

The state, which had already been diverting young offenders to local juvenile halls, began closing several individual facilities and camps. In 2010, the division relinquished its supervision of young offenders to county probation agencies, which operate juvenile halls.

In many ways, these moves beta-tested a wholesale realignment of adult institutions that occurred four years later and largely eclipsed what’s transpired at the kid-brother level.

But whereas the state legislation that enacted prison realignment in October 2011 also created local “community correction partnerships” to divvy up millions in new allocations, there was less new income and even less oversight into how money would be spent on local juvenile justice matters.

In other words, everyone was so busy watching the one hand that they didn’t pay attention to what the other one was doing.

As expected, California’s youth detention population nose-dived. As of December of last year, the state housed 683 minors in youth and adult correctional institutions—down 85 percent compared to a decade prior.

Local juvenile hall officials braced for an influx of young offenders from the state. But that never happened.

Instead, juvenile arrests went on a decade-spanning decline that no one can really account for.

“Ask me why,” Sacramento County assistant probation chief Michael Shores said during a recent meeting at juvenile hall.

“Why?” responded Laura McCasland, the spokeswoman for the county’s public health department.

“I don’t know,” Shores said.

Some have speculated that the recession-spurred layoffs means there’s fewer peace officers to arrest or violate juvenile lawbreakers. Advocacy groups have also pushed to limit court involvement for children who commit “status offenses,” which are only deemed crimes for minors, like truancy or violating municipal curfews. In addition, calls to embrace a “restorative justice” model of teaching, in which class disruptions are resolved in-house rather than through suspensions and expulsions that disproportionately affect black and Latino students, gained legislative muscle this year.

Whatever the reasons, there are fewer young people getting locked up.

Locally, juvenile hall bookings plummeted by more than 50 percent in a decade’s span, to 2,837 in 2012, according to the Board of State Community Corrections. In 2002, 5,711 juveniles were booked into the hall. During that same period, the average daily population of youth detained at juvenile hall declined 41.05 percent—from approximately 307 kids in 2002 to slightly more than 178 kids in 2012. The population of kids incarcerated at the hall has crept back up, hovering at just under 200 this year, but is still around the lowest it’s been in the past 15 years.

That’s the good news.

Shores said he likes to think this downward trend is related to the diversion policies his department adopted over the last several years, but acknowledges that wouldn’t account for similar drops in counties that have pursued different strategies or no diversion efforts at all.

The sum total is that fewer kids are being locked up, though no one seems to know why. Which is to say that, if the diminishment of the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice had any impact, it’s in the kind of offender going to juvenile hall: younger, sicker and more likely to lack family support.

Juvenile hall is not the place for them, officials on the inside and outside agree. Yet it is more commonly the only place for them.

“Yes,” said Toni Gardner, a retired field representative with the Board of State and Community Corrections, which monitors local jails and juvenile halls.

Gardner, who visited many of California’s most scrutinized juvenile halls during her career, described children with past traumas, like an honor roll student whose brain injury brought on violent outbursts, or a sexually abused teen who repeats his trauma on others. “That is what each juvenile hall faces,” she said. One child, taxing the hall’s resources as staff, armed with little more than their wits, is expected to care for—and control—them.

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