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California and the West

Does State Have Will to Reform Youth Prisons?

Corrections: Success in implementing proposed changes in the system will depend on the commitment of leadership and money, experts say.

November 19, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A raft of new policies proposed last week for the California Youth Authority may reduce excessive force and bring some improvements in the state's youth prison system, but true reforms will require strong leadership and increased spending, experts said.

The system of 15 prisons and camps needs to invest in expanded drug rehabilitation, sex offender therapy and counseling programs if it is to have any hope of rehabilitating more of its 7,400 wards, said the experts, who have monitored the agency for many years.

The comments came in response to a report on the youth authority, which included dozens of proposed regulations on everything from when prisoners can be put in restraints to the use of pepper spray by correctional officers and methods for controlling head lice.

Implementation of the 4-inch-thick volume of proposals is up to Robert Presley, secretary of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, and Jerry L. Harper, director of the youth authority. Representatives for both said they would move ahead with the reforms as quickly as possible.

But outside experts said that the two administrators must go further, reasserting the youth authority's rehabilitative mission and insisting on increased funding to hire the nurses, therapists and other staffers needed to get the job done. At least one analyst said the agency needs to replace its enormous prisons with smaller therapeutic centers.

"I think it is critical to have a change in mind-set so people feel there is support for rehabilitation and really working with the kids," said Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, who worked on the reform proposals.

"Then, after we look for improvements within the four walls of the youth authority, we need to focus on the bigger picture," added Burrell, who previously sued the agency to improve education and medical care. "Why is California investing in these enormous institutions, instead of finding other ways to work with these kids with very deep problems?"

The concerns about the youth authority were raised last year by the state office of the inspector general, which found that wards in several institutions were subjected to excessive force and received few of the programs they were promised.

The Times subsequently reported that a punitive culture among some employees had overwhelmed rehabilitation at the youth prisons and that at El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility near San Luis Obispo, wards sometimes were forced onto their knees for hours on end.

After those revelations, Presley convened the panel of some 100 experts, which, in turn, produced the report that became public last week.

Some of the proposed regulations in the report could offer almost immediate relief for youthful wards, said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

One policy, for instance, would attempt to strictly limit the use of so-called 23-1 confinement, the practice of locking wards in their cells for 23 hours a day for disciplinary reasons.

Despite sensational charges last year about wards being beaten or shot with riot guns, Krisberg said he is convinced that the vast majority of youth authority employees want to help the young inmates avoid a return to prison.

"The main story here is not about bad people," Krisberg said. "It's about people trying to operate without the tools they need."

The Times review found that wards sometimes were ordered into special programs, such as drug rehabilitation, and then denied parole when those programs had no vacancies. Nearly 2,000 wards were waiting for drug rehab. Nearly 700 others could not get a bed in the special units for severe psychological disability or sexual deviance.

"These are some very troubling and troublesome young people and they need resources. They have to be treated," Krisberg said.

State Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) cheered the reform proposals and said he will push a budget increase for the troubled agency. The legislative analyst's office has suggested that it would take $25 million more a year to provide the special treatment programs that wards have been ordered to enter.

Gov. Gray Davis vetoed an additional $6.4 million put into this year's budget for such services, saying that the need for the funds was "unclear."

But the assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency said he is "quite confident" that Davis will back more spending for the reforms in the budget he is expected to announce for the coming year.

"It is certainly our goal to have these people in programs and to have those adequately funded," said Stephen Green, the assistant secretary.

Harper, the former No. 2 official in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, has attempted to assert his new regime at the youth authority with a series of appointments. Effective next month, Harper will have two new top deputies in his central office and new, permanent superintendents of youth prisons in Stockton, Ione, Paso Robles and Ventura.

Harper spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman said many of the new appointees have "strong backgrounds in social work" and are prepared to focus on the agency's rehabilitation mission.

Less optimistic about the prospect for real change was Dan Macallair, vice president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. Macallair says young criminals can better be reformed in much smaller facilities, preferably with fewer than 20 individuals, rather than the 1,000 or more in some youth authority prisons.

Twice in the past, in 1987 and 1994, Macallair was a member of panels that reviewed conditions at the youth authority. Those reform efforts resulted in little change, he said.

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