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A Junkyard for Young Lives

February 04, 2004

Experts who studied the miserable lives of juvenile inmates in the charge of the California Youth Authority released reports this week showing a system in worse shape than most outsiders could have imagined. The state subjects its charges to the harshest punishments of any juvenile detention system nationwide, leaving teenagers confined in steel-mesh cages when guards aren't prying them from their cells with mace and tear gas.

As horrifying as the reports are, they are consistent with the state's completely broken prison system. The common problems include:

* A revolving door of crime. Nine out of 10 youth offenders released in California end up incarcerated again. That is far higher than the adult rate, which at more than 60% is among the worst in the nation.

* A failure to provide rehabilitation. Both the adult and youth prison systems are set up to rely on military-style force, to the exclusion of the behavior modification, counseling, education, job training and life-skills training that other states use to reduce their recidivism rates.

* Lack of oversight. Similarly damning reports in the 1990s forced Youth Authority guards to use mace rather than rubber bullets against inmates, but larger reforms were quickly undercut, going unnoticed or ignored by politicians.

The reports on the Youth Authority are only the latest in a flurry of slams against the state's correctional system. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a governor unbeholden to the vindictive prison guards union, has stoked hope for change by forcing the resignation of former Corrections Department Director Edward S. Alameida (known as "Dr. No" for his resistance to reform), and by trying to reduce the approximately $1.5 billion in pay raises that legislators granted the guards.

But real change would require the recently appointed top prison official, Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman, to begin immediate reforms. These include changing policies that provoke rather than prevent violence between wards of the Youth Authority and ending the daily dumping of about 120 of the highest-risk inmates directly from maximum-security cubicles onto street corners. Such inmates, youths and adults alike, should at least spend time in transitional facilities -- lower-security lockups where they would be connected with services on the outside, whether job training or basic schooling.

If Hickman begins tackling these serious problems now with Schwarzenegger's full backing, the state may avoid harsh federal action by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. The judge's investigator, John Hagar, has probed corruption in California prisons since the early '90s, reaching the conclusion that state leaders have been incapable of reining in the chaos and corruption that so obviously threaten public safety.

Henderson has the authority to take over the state prison system -- appointing a director to manage its personnel and oversight, much as an outsider controls a bankrupt company. Given the gravity of the problem, he will have to use that authority if the new administration's efforts fail. We hope, against the evidence of history, that they succeed.

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