Juvenile Justice in Need of Reform

Juvenile Justice in Need of Reform

Division of Juvenile Justice

Reese Levine, Staff Writer

For over 100 years, the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has held and rehabilitated criminals ages 12 to 25. However, over the past decade it has become apparent that they have not done a good enough job, and therefore there is only one solution: shut the state system down and move responsibility for rehabilitation over to the counties.

The goal of the DJJ to take youth offenders, and educate and rehabilitate them for life as stable, well-adjusted adults. But the reality is a different story altogether.

According to DJJ’s Office of Research, 90 percent of juveniles released from DJJ facilities end up with an adult criminal record, and only 4 percent end up working or in school. Of the other 6 percent, 5 percent are dead within three years.

Violence has been a large problem at DJJ facilities. To reduce the likelihood of violence, some wards are kept in cells 23 hours a day on non-school days. In a place intended to be more of a rehabilitation center instead of a prison, this measure seems counter-intuitive.

An incident in 2004 exposed the level of corruption and cruelty within the DJJ. Videotape from the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton showed a youth being punched in the head by guards, sparking calls for closure of the facility. In the same year, two other youths died in the same place.

In 2005, the DJJ began a reform effort. But that same year, perhaps the most shocking incident occured at the same Stockton facility.  Eighteen-year-old Joseph Maldonado hanged himself in his jail cell after spending eight weeks in solitary confinement, a punishment that had supposedly been ended a year earlier.

As part of the deal, the DJJ sent out quarterly progress reports showing how their reform efforts were coming.While at first they did send these reports out, there have been no new additions since the first quarter of 2011.

The best choice of action is to shut down the DJJ entirely. Instead of concentrating youths in harsh, institutionalized environments, counties and communities should take the reins in rehabilitation.

In fact, the DJJ was scheduled to close during 2011, but Governor Jerry Brown scrapped these plans during the budget crisis in June. So now, the whole system is in a kind of limbo, with no one knowing where it will end up.

A study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that after peaking in the mid-1990s, juvenile crime rates have reached an all time low. Much of this is due to states transferring youths out of state-run prisons into community-based alternatives.

Right now, California only has three DJJ facilities left, housing about 1,000 inmates. Most of these are higher-risk, violent-crime inmates who counties are reluctant to handle, citing lack of necessary resources.

But if the vicious cycle of violence is to be stopped, the counties must take even the most violent offenders. By treating them fairly and not keeping them locked up constantly, there is a fair chance that they can be rehabilitated.

While at Miramonte there are fewer problems with crime compared to other areas in the state, especially violent crime, the closing of the DJJ will still benefit juvenile delinquents from this area.

With no state facilities, no one will have to worry about being sent off to a place that is more focused on punishment than rehabilitation. They will stay closer to home where they can have more interaction with parents and counselors and will almost certainly be less likely to repeat their crime.

If California’s government is serious about taking juvenile offenders and rehabilitating them into becomeing  well-adjusted members of adult society, it must stop treating them like adult criminals who need to be punished.

It is time to transfer the offenders over to the care of the counties, who will be able to better help and support them. Only then will California be making good on its promise to help these misdirected youths.