Responding to pressure from probation chiefs, district attorneys and prison guards, Gov. Jerry Brown has done an about-face on a revolutionary plan to shutter California's youth prison system that was once the nation's largest -- and arguably the most notorious.
Just four months ago, a small section buried in the governor's belt-tightening budget caused a massive stir in the juvenile justice world. With annual costs per inmate at about $200,000 and its population down 90 percent from peak years, the youth prison system should stop accepting serious and violent youthful offenders beginning next year, the Brown administration concluded.
For prison reformers who have long battled 23-hour confinement, education in cages and endemic violence, Brown's Jan. 5 recommendation to eventually shift all the young inmates to county facilities was a startling and welcome move.
But in a revision of the budget released Monday, the governor now calls for upending his previous plan. The change came about after howls of protest from corrections officials, who flooded Sacramento budget hearings with demands that the Division of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, remain open.
Counties, already struggling with an influx of adult prisoners shifted to their watch under other state budget reforms, simply couldn't handle these most-difficult youths, they argued. Prosecutors warned that without state-run youth lockups, more juveniles would be sent to adult prisons.
H.D. Palmer, the governor's finance spokesman, confirmed that in response to law-enforcement concerns, the administration had "decided to take a different approach."
But that decision to reverse course has left some lamenting the missed opportunity.
"Counties could do this better, even though it would take time and planning," said Sumayyah Waheed, who directs the Books Not Bars campaign for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "It was just a matter of having the courage to go for something better."
Waheed argued that the logistics could have been overcome, given that the population of youthful offenders in state custody has plunged from 10,000 in 1996 to a projected 992 this fiscal year. There were once 11 state facilities; now three exist.
In the governor's latest budget plan, juvenile parolees would be shifted to the counties in 2013, but the state would continue housing the most serious and violent offenders, for a general fund savings of $24.8 million this fiscal year.
The age limit for those in youth prisons would drop from 25 to 23, and administrative staff would be reduced. Counties would pay $24,000 annually for each offender sent to the state.
Surprisingly, the new plan is acceptable to some of the state's most ardent prison critics.
"Some say shut DJJ down, but it's just not clear to me where these youth would go," said attorney Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, which is monitoring a 2004 legal settlement over conditions of youth confinement. "It would be far better if there were small regionally run centers where kids could be close to their homes and families, but that doesn't seem to be in the stars."
Norman and others concede that counties are mostly unequipped to provide both the security and the intensive treatment that the most disturbed young offenders require.
Santa Clara County, for example, offers a ranch program that is considered exemplary. But it now has 15 juvenile offenders in state custody, young people who Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell says exhausted all the local alternatives.
Consultants following court-ordered reforms of the state institutions say conditions have improved considerably. Behavioral treatment programs are in place, and violence is down -- most notably at two of the three facilities in the Central Valley.
Most of the ongoing problems continue to plague Southern California's Ventura facility, according to Barry Krisberg, a juvenile justice expert and state consultant. But, overall, "they've dramatically improved the education system, medical care is way better, and the use of solitary confinement and use of force have been cut down," he said.
Krisberg added that those changes have occurred despite the physical plants being "disastrous and crumbling."
Longtime state consultant David Steinhart said the changes, coupled with the dramatic downsizing of the California youth prison system, are a remarkable story.
"There's still a lot to celebrate," he said, noting that California has joined large states across the country that are turning away from an old model of warehousing juvenile offenders. "We're down to a shadow institution that holds just a few kids that the counties can't handle. So in the big picture, not shutting the last door is not that big of a deal."