State’s Gain Could Be County’s Loss

Long-needed reforms to the state's draconian Youth Authority may stress county probation budgets at a time they're already seriously overtaxed.

Believe it or not, California is finally trying to reform one of its most dishonorable legacies. It’s the twilight zone in the state’s correctional system, the world between the juvenile halls that supervise kids caught joyriding or getting in fistfights, and hellish prisons such as Soledad or San Quentin. It’s the California Youth Authority, a sprawling universe of boot camps and penal warehouses, most of which are located in the Central Valley.

Most people familiar with this system have allowed themselves to indulge in the illusion that the guards and social workers of the Youth Authority offer young offenders a subtle mix of incarceration, education, and mental-health services. Of course, we all knew it was a lie, and that authority facilities merely turn many otherwise-redeemable kids — by the way, they’re called “wards,” which is sort of like calling Wal-Mart stock clerks “associates” — into career criminals. But thanks to the all-powerful prison guards’ union and its expensive courtesan Gray Davis, meaningful reform of this broken institution seemed all but impossible.

Now, a series of disparate events has converged to unmake the Youth Authority as we know it. And the 4,222 kids who languish in its facilities may finally see a more humane approach to juvenile justice. An East Bay lawsuit that has wound its way through the courts for years has brought to light abuses in the system that cannot be ignored. Members of the state legislature, with the unexpected help of a new governor unbeholden to the prison guards’ union, are pushing to remake the Youth Authority from the ground up.

But as always, a downside lurks underneath this happy development. One of the inevitable consequences of such reforms will be the transfer of dozens of wards back into the hands of county law enforcement. And the counties are, of course, broke. In fact, they’re more than broke; with one hand, the state is about to dump deeply troubled kids onto the counties, and with the other, it’s about to steal some of the last dollars they have left to deal with them. It’s the law of unintended consequences. What looks like an admirable change may turn out to be just another unfunded mandate for counties already struggling to keep their public hospitals open.

The small handful of lawyers who started this ball rolling work in the community of San Quentin, almost in the shadow of California’s Death Row. In January 2003, after her initial class-action lawsuit withered on the vine, attorney Susan Norman of the nonprofit Prison Law Office filed a taxpayers’ action against the Youth Authority in Alameda’s Superior Court, exploiting a little-noticed provision that allows California citizens to sue public officials for misusing taxpayer funds. (I hope you’re taking notes, kids.) In response to Norman’s claims of abuse and neglect within the system, the court appointed a panel of experts, approved by both sides, to review how the Youth Authority treated its wards.

In February, state Senator Gloria Romero released the reports to the press, and the findings were uniformly damning. Prison guards regularly abused wards, lockdowns were implemented for months at a time, and mental-health services were substandard. The centerpiece of Romero’s disclosures was a videotape that caught guards beating a prostrate youth, horrifying the public and prompting a reexamination of the Youth Authority’s practices. In the opening remarks to the state Senate’s hearings, Romero stopped just short of calling for the outright abolition of the system, dismissing any action short of that as attempts to “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Now, Romero has introduced three bills to reform the Youth Authority and promises more to come. After a rocky start, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has empaneled a commission, headed by former Governor George Deukmejian, to investigate abuses throughout the correctional system, including the Youth Authority. Perhaps most important, Susan Norman claims that her office is in the midst of settlement negotiations with the state of California, and a sweeping resolution to this case is imminent. But as she acknowledges, many of the reforms could include an end to the old practice of warehousing all the wards far out in the Central Valley, returning them to counties that have no money to care for them. “I think that if they follow through with the reforms that they promised in the media, and settle the lawsuit, and we get the oversight we want, it could be a place where youths get the intensive mental-health treatment that they need,” she says. “The fear is the frying pan into the fire. The counties are so underfunded that they could be worse than the Youth Authority. And nobody has oversight or control over them.”

Norman’s apprehension is certainly shared by Donald Blevins, Alameda County’s chief of probation. County officials, facing a $115 million deficit, agreed last week to cut almost $5 million out of Blevins’ office, which supervises 20,500 probationers and also runs the county juvenile hall. Blevins has heard rumors that the county may have to absorb about forty young offenders back into its system. And while they wouldn’t be the hardest criminals, they are likely to be the sort who suffer from serious mental-health problems and demand care that the county just can’t afford. “If you look at the type of kid in the Youth Authority, 70 percent of them have some sort of mental-health issues,” Blevins says. “So besides being a drain on probation resources, the county’s mental-health agencies will feel the impact as well. … What we would need in order to handle these kids locally is a secure setting where they wouldn’t go AWOL, and we can provide the education and training they need. That kind of facility doesn’t exist in Alameda County.”

Nor is it likely to be built here anytime soon. Even as Alameda County braces for a new wave of wards, both the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations are poised to slash the very funds the county would tap to take care of them. The Bush administration has announced that by 2005, it intends to eliminate the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant, which funds probation, gang-prevention, and youth mental-health programs. And while Schwarzenegger has not received the same largesse from prison guards as his predecessor, he intends to eliminate $134 million in state funds for county probation departments — which will cut $7 million out of Alameda County’s annual probation budget. The governor giveth, and the governor taketh away.

The long-suffering county supervisors, having just weathered a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and the worst fiscal crisis the county hospital system has ever seen, must now figure out how to deal with this latest headache. According to Joe DeVries, an aide to Supervisor Nate Miley, the Board of Supes is looking into the possibility of using construction money diverted from the new, downsized juvenile hall to build “check-in centers,” which would require juvenile offenders to report to facilities after school, where they would get mental-health treatment, tutoring, and a hot meal. Most important, it would keep kids off the streets between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, the hours in which unsupervised kids most frequently commit crimes. DeVries claims that a similar program cut Chicago’s juvenile-hall population in half and led to enormous savings, but Supervisor Keith Carson doubts whether the county has the resources to pull it off. “The reality at the moment is local government has been fiscally devastated so much that we’re playing three-card monte just to keep things going,” he says. “While I totally support the idea of bringing the kids who aren’t the most violent back into our community, we don’t have the resources for it.”

State Senator Romero doesn’t have the patience for these arguments. She is determined to replace the California Youth Authority with a more humane approach, and worries that such fiscal concerns will be used by boosters of the Youth Authority system — boosters such as Blevins of Alameda County, as it happens — to derail her ambitions. “My vision is, you blow up the California Youth Authority, which doesn’t work,” she says. “It is a failure, we have seen a string of barbarism flow out of this. … If we start off by saying, oh, gee, don’t send them to me, it’s an unfunded mandate — I don’t have any sympathy for that. We have got to put rehabilitation in the forefront of our juvenile justice system. As grownups, we have that responsibility.”

So Carson has no choice but to do what he’s done his entire career — go back to Sacramento and nag the governor for more money. But things have changed in the capital, he says. Not only is Schwarzenegger more independent of the prison guards than his predecessor, he actually listens to people, unlike the imperious Gray Davis. Carson fully recognizes the irony of getting more face time with a Republican governor than he ever did with the disgraced Democrat who preceded him. It’s in that irony, he says, that he places his hope. “One of the things that I’ve seen Schwarzenegger do is respond when there’s enough pressure,” he says. “He did it with education, when he got enough pressure. We gotta try and affect him. … [Davis] never sat down and looked us in the eye. He said, ‘You got nowhere else to go.’ I respect someone who looks us in the eye. I’m not an Arnold supporter, but I respect that.”

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