The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) population in 2013 declined to fewer than 800 youth in three remaining institutions. About 150 of those are under adult jurisdiction, housed in DJJ until they can be transferred to prison at age 18. DJJ, with a top jurisdictional age of 23, remains an age-limited alternative to state prison for juvenile court commitments.
In 2011 and 2012, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to completely shut down the state Division of Juvenile Justice. This proposal failed due to opposition from counties claiming a threat to public safety and a lack of capacity to serve high risk/high needs youth. In 2013, advocates promoted a bill (short of closure) that would have paid counties to retain DJJ-eligible youth in specialized local programs.
A key issue facing California policymakers is this: if DJJ is downsized or closed, where will offenders now in DJJ go? By definition, these state-committed youth are eligible for “direct file” in adult court and for commitment to state prison. Commonweal takes the position that any proposal to shut down DJJ must include safeguards against the sacrifice of the current DJJ population to the adult prison system. These could be in the form of limits on county commitments of juveniles to prisons or other adjustments of sentencing law.
The reform agenda for the future should include these elements:
- Improve monitoring of programs and outcomes of offenders now realigned to counties
- Promote the development of effective re-entry programs, including outcome monitoring, for youth realigned from state to local custody and care
- Develop a community-based or privately operated correctional program for the small number of females who remain in DJJ
- Develop broader local program capacity for serious offenders now housed in DJJ, with adequate funding to support the additional capacity.
- Work with policymakers, courts, attorneys and corrections agencies to control and reduce the volume of youth direct-filed in adult criminal courts and sent to state prisons
- Support proposals to downsize or close DJJ, but only to the extent that safeguards are adopted against sacrificing DJJ youth to the adult prison system