Fear is expensive.
It is extremely so when it comes to California’s handling of violent juvenile offenders.
The taxpayer tab for the California Youth Authority topped $234,000 per ward in 2009. Compare that to county institutional facilities where the average cost ranges from $22,000 to $25,000 a year. It is little wonder that numerous folks, including the Little Hoover Commission, the Legislative’s Analyst’s Office, and now Gov. Jerry Brown, have called for the elimination of the six remaining CYA detention facilities including the one on Arch Road in Stockton 10 miles north of Manteca.
The CYA continues to exist not because it makes sense but because of fear.
Completely pulling the plug flies in the face of the hysteria often surrounding heinous juvenile crime that gets bigger play today thanks to media overload whether it is sensationalizing by traditional sources or those that the Internet spawned. Add to that effective lobbying by self-serving state employee groups and you can understand why pulling the plug on the CYA would be extremely difficult.
The most effective solution is to follow the trend that started in the 1990s, where counties took matters into their own hands addressing juvenile crime by expanding their own detention centers. In doing so, they actually enhanced public safety as the incident of juvenile crime based on felony arrests in California dropped 20 percent from 87,748 in 1997 to 66,191 in 2007. At the same time the state’s population of 10-to 17-year-olds soared by a million. Those figures reflect a 33 percent drop in homicide arrests, a 46 percent drop in rape arrests, a 14 percent drop in robbery arrests, a 13 percent drop in assault arrests, a 39 percent drop in property crime arrests, and a 35 percent drop in drug arrests.
At the same time the peak CYA population reached 9,772 in 1996 and dropped off to 1,637 as of 2009.
The system also seems to be bit self-perpetuating. Studies done by various commissions note juveniles spend more time in juvenile facilities than adults do in adult facilities for comparable crimes. At the same time, youth tried in adult courts get lighter sentences than youth prosecuted in juvenile court.
A 2009 study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice noted that existing county probation departments have expanded their institutional capacity to the point they now have more high security facilities than the CYA. At the same time there is excess capacity in the counties with plenty of room to absorb the remaining CYA wards. It isn’t a universal situation among counties, but with contracts counties without the space could place convicted juvenile offenders with counties that have the space.
Surprisingly, a 2009 survey showed San Joaquin County had the fifth lowest use in the state of the CYA, with 17.5 of every 1,000 juvenile offenders arrested being imprisoned at a CYA facility.
At the same time, as of mid-2008, San Joaquin County had a rated juvenile facility capacity of 224 with a detention population of 180. If the county’s CYA wards in 2008 where shifted back to the juvenile facility in French Camp, the county still would have had capacity to imprison 10 more convicted juvenile offenders.
In early 2008, the counties had more than 2,600 imprisoned juveniles convicted of felonies. That underscores their ability to manage violent youthful offenders.
The CYA is a prime example of a state service that is no longer effective while local government can do it better and at about 15 percent of the cost of a bureaucracy run out of Sacramento.
It is time for pragmatism and not fear or political posturing to rule the California Legislature.
It is time to pull the plug on the CYA.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.