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As California Shutters Last Remaining Juvenile Lockups, Counties Raise Concerns About Preparedness and Funding

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A juvenile detention facility, with individual housing units on two floors connected by a stairway.
An empty housing unit at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco, on Sept. 20, 2018. (Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In just four months, California will shutter its remaining state-run juvenile lockups and send the estimated 170 young people still incarcerated there back to their home counties, where they will complete their sentences in local juvenile halls or other county-run programs.

But county officials are ringing alarm bells, saying they need more state resources and support to successfully integrate these youths into their local systems. The young people coming back from the Division of Juvenile Justice are serving sentences for violent crimes — murders, rapes, assaults — and can be far older than other young people in county systems.

Probation agencies oversee county juvenile justice systems around the state.

Lassen County Probation Chief Jennifer Branning is president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, which advocates on the organization's behalf in the state Capitol.

Branning sees a lot of opportunity ahead, she said, but it’s going to take work — and look different in every one of the state’s 58 counties.

“We've been doing this,” she said of local probation departments serving young offenders. “We know how to do this. We know how to provide services. We know what services these kids need. We're really good at it. We just need the support to continue doing it.”

The planned June 30 closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice will cap a years-long reform effort centered on the idea that young offenders will do better closer to home and in less institutional settings. California’s reforms have coincided with a dramatic drop in youth crime nationwide that’s left many juvenile halls nearly empty.

But Branning and other chiefs say the more than $200 million budgeted this year to help smooth the transition isn’t enough. Their concerns include the practical: For example, how do you run an entire program for a sex offender if the county has only one kid with those needs at a time? Are there enough staff, especially in rural counties, to meet the behavioral health and other treatment needs of these young people?

And their concerns are also logistical, Branning says — like the question of where to house and treat young people coming back from DJJ, who may need more intensive support and can be as old as 26.

“I am most concerned about the youth that are coming back from DJJ mixing with a more vulnerable population and how that's going to really have damaging effects,” she said. “I don't think it's going to matter if you're a small county or a large county. When you bring these youth back without the appropriate services and without the appropriate level of mental health services, it's going to destabilize things and it could create more crisis.”

In a series of letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders (PDF) over the past year, Branning and other chiefs have argued that they need the state to step up and help facilitate the creation of regional treatment programs for girls, or sex offenders, or youth with severe mental illness. They also want more money so they can recruit and hire more staff; and they want other state resources, like short-term beds at the Department of State Hospitals, to be made available for young adults in crisis.

Not everyone agrees that the counties need more. Dan Macallair is executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit group that has long advocated for DJJ’s closure. Macallair believes counties have plenty of room and resources to make the transition work.

“We've got 12,000 juvenile hall beds and only about 3,600 kids in them,” he said. “They have the institutional space. Now, do they have the will is the question.”

Macallair argues that probation departments need to get more creative and “break out of the confines of that bureaucratic box that many of them have been operating in.”

“They've had plenty of time to plan for this and most of these departments should be ready to implement this,” he said. “They have the money to staff up. But it's not just staffing up the juvenile halls. It's also building up the community-based services.”

Newsom, who has led the effort to shutter DJJ, has been directing more money to counties over the past several years to help them prepare for this change. How much money each county received was based in part on how many youths they historically sent to state lockups.

Contra Costa County Probation Chief Esa Ehmen-Krause said she initially thought her county would be getting plenty of money to cover its costs. But over the past two years, since the state stopped taking new youths into DJJ, she’s found that keeping those more serious offenders in Contra Costa juvenile hall is costing three times what the state is providing Contra Costa County.

“If you're just looking at bed space, one could argue that we are in a good position to receive them back,” she said. “What I don't feel has been adequately considered is the higher need level of these young people, whether or not counties have existing resources or the ability to even grow the capacity for those resources locally.”

Ehmen-Krause said that the increased cost to house these young people doesn’t even include all the money the county is also spending on new educational and vocational programs, social workers, financial literacy classes and other support.

“This is really robust programming to meet these kids' needs, to really put them on the right path for success” she said. “But just our housing alone, the staff supervision and the housing alone, has already, like, tripled what our local allocation was.”

Newsom’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment about Ehmen-Krause's concerns. Branning and other probation chiefs said they will continue to lobby Newsom and lawmakers for more resources this spring, as those state leaders work to craft next year’s state budget.

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