State must move past warehouse prisons for young people
The closings last week of DeWitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility and El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility - two notorious youth prisons - are welcome news for the youths and their families who have been scarred by California's abusive youth prison system.
Paso Robles illustrates why the Division of Juvenile Justice is a failed system.
The vast majority of youths' families had to travel at least three hours to visit the facility. At a prison with 400 youths, a typical visiting day saw less than a dozen families visiting. Most of the young people languished with little to no family contact. Inside, they faced rampant abuse by guards. An isolating and hostile institution, Paso Robles' closing is no loss. Unfortunately, remaining youth prisons present the same endemic problems. Adult-like prisons that house hundreds of youths make rehabilitation all but impossible.
The warehouse model, in which youths are herded into large dorms or locked in drab single cells, inhibits individualized treatment and a culture of rehabilitation. At Preston and Stark youth prisons, these structural problems contribute to guard antagonism and to divisiveness among prisoners, for an overall atmosphere of violence and neglect. At Preston, youths choose to remain in their concrete cells all day, forgoing class and other activities for fear of assault. At Stark, youths often have no choice. Persistent chaos keeps them in their cells and out of programs.
Wisely, California is steadily shifting from its system of ineffective, costly warehouse youth prisons to a comprehensive scheme of evidence-based local and regional care. Last year, the Legislature passed a law to slash the prisons' population by 40 percent, instead funding counties to serve low-risk, low-need youths. The move signaled California's desire to heed experts' calls for systemic change and to invest in therapeutic models of juvenile justice that have proved successful in California counties and across the country.
It's not over, though. Six youth prisons remain. Four years of lawsuit-driven reform plans have failed.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which alleged illegal and inhumane conditions in the youth prisons, have found reforms so impossible to extract from the lead-footed and inept Department of Juvenile Justice that they are now seeking a receiver. With a $488 million budget and a population of 1,950 youths - each costing the state $252,000 per year - California's youth prison system has become the state's budgetary black hole.
Unfortunately, Paso Robles is now slated to become a state prison and fire camp for adults. Closed youth prisons shouldn't be reincarnated to expand the even more grievously failing adult prison system. On the adult side, too, California must heed the experts and invest in what works - real rehabilitation, not runaway incarceration. The two prison closings are just steps on a path that California must complete toward full transformation to a model system.
Missouri has such a system. In Missouri, youths receive treatment in small, homelike settings that encourage family involvement. The Missouri system has been touted nationwide - most recently in the New York Times - for its humane, cost-effective and markedly successful approach. In contrast to California's dismal numbers, Missouri's recidivism rate is a cool 7.3 percent, at little more than a tenth of the cost - $28,000 per youth per year.
Only by shutting down the warehouse prisons can California shift to the Missouri model and allow youths to re-enter society with a chance to make it.
5 August 2008