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Shut Down State Youth Prisons, Experts Say

Committee is told that smaller living units with more counselors would ease system's problems.

September 22, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Efforts to reform California's correctional system for the young will go nowhere unless the state closes its prisons and shifts inmates to small living centers with intensive treatment and abundant staff, national experts on juvenile justice said Tuesday.

Capping a year of scandal within the state's juvenile prisons, the experts told a special state Senate committee on corrections that merely tinkering with the California Youth Authority is pointless.

Instead, they said, California must follow the lead of Massachusetts and Missouri, closing lockups that house as many as 900 inmates and starting over with a new model that will better prepare youths to live crime-free once released.

"We're in an emergency situation and we need emergency action," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "This might be a big-ticket item, but the Legislature and the voters need to realize that we've starved this system for a long time -- we've played it on the cheap -- and it's time to do something different."

His sentiments were echoed by Dan Macallair, a 20-year veteran of juvenile justice work. "The California Youth Authority is a dinosaur

That prescription brought cheers from spectators at the Capitol hearing, including former youth authority inmates and parents of those currently incarcerated. Among them was the father of Stockton teenager Durrell Feaster, who along with cellmate Deon Whitfield of Los Angeles hanged himself with a bed sheet in an isolation cell in January.

The two deaths raised to 15 the number of youths who have taken their lives while incarcerated in youth authority facilities since 1996. They also added a tragic dimension to a series of state-ordered reports in February that criticized the agency for its violence and failure to meet the educational, medical and mental health needs of inmates.

Youth authority Director Walter Allen III, appointed in December by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, acknowledged serious problems in the system and told the committee he is on a mission to "change the way we do business."

"If my own son were in the youth authority, I would not be happy," he said.

But later, Allen said that fixing the youth authority did not require such an "extreme" step as closing its eight prisons. Instead, he is working on several fronts to restore the sort of "therapeutic environment we all want," he said.

Some changes will come as part of the state's pending settlement of a lawsuit that challenged conditions inside facilities. That settlement, expected soon, will compel improvements in many areas, including housing, medical care, staffing ratios and education, officials said.

Allen also pledged to launch a pilot program reflecting the small-scale living units, intensive therapy and other approaches used with success in Missouri. Twice this year, Allen has toured Missouri's system, considered a national model for its ability to rehabilitate wayward youth. Other youth authority staff will travel there soon for training.

While reluctant to provide many details, Allen said the pilot project would house no more than 25 offenders at a Northern California facility modeled after the homey environment found in Missouri's correctional centers. Rich in staffing, the program will offer intensive treatment and peer support.

"I'm an impatient man, and we are moving forward aggressively to make the reforms needed," Allen said. "But we're talking about 25 or 30 years worth of problems that have built up.... Change doesn't come overnight."

Krisberg and the other experts expressed support for Allen's good intentions but characterized the pilot program as a go-slow solution that falls short of what the youth authority needs. Although the agency spends $130,000 a year on each female inmate and $80,000 annually on each male, more than half of those released are back behind bars within two years.

Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said he first testified about problems and possible solutions within the youth authority in 1988.

"At that time, Massachusetts was the model, and everyone said this is the way to go and isn't it wonderful," Macallair said. "But nothing changed here.

"We don't need another pilot program.... If we're going to succeed, we need to change the structure and close these facilities down," he said.

The experts suggested that as many as half of the 3,802 inmates now in youth authority facilities could be shifted to community-based programs run by counties or nonprofit organizations with a track record in treatment. The remaining "hard-core" population -- youths with serious mental illnesses and other problems that local communities do not want to deal with -- would remain in newly designed youth authority facilities, with small living units and more counselors.

Tuesday's hearing was convened by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who has led efforts to reform corrections over the past year. Romero also visited Missouri recently and said she returned "ashamed of what we have in California."

After the testimony, Romero said she was "all the more convinced that a massive overhaul of the youth authority is in order."

"Will that require closing everything down? I don't know. But CYA is a failure, and in terms of creating the therapeutic environment we all want, I don't think these facilities can get us there."

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