Realigning Juvenile Institutions

Sam Mateo County facility; photo courtesy CJCJ publication.

OH Close YCF; photo courtesy CJCJ publication.

While we remain curious as to the ability of county jails to supplant state institutions for a considerable percentage of the adult population, a similar move for juvenile offenders seems to offer more optimism. A new publication from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice takes a comparative look at state and county juvenile institutions, being much more impressed with county modern facilities than with the disturbingly grim and defunct state institutions. The bottom line:

The review demonstrates that local secure county-based facilities currently surpass existing state youth correctional facilities in architectural design and structural integrity. Due to various federal grants and funding stream requirements, counties have renovated and enhanced their juvenile facilities to provide maximum, medium, and minimum security levels of custody that allow for provision of fully integrated rehabilitative services on-site. 41 California counties have already invested $438,612,750 of state and federal funding to renovate or construct new maximum-security juvenile halls within the last five years. Meanwhile state facilities have continued to decay into a condition of disrepair.

Perhaps this report will provide prosecutors with disincentives to file charges against juvenile defendants as adults, a practice known as “direct filing”, whose usage varies between counties (Ventura County seems the worst offender). The impetus to do so stems from the fact that trying juveniles as adults shifts the price tag from the county to the state. But if the choice is between a distant adult state prison and a local, modern juvenile facility, which might be closer to support structure and offer community corrections benefits, in the long run it may be cheaper for all of us.

SB9 Defeated in Assembly

Short by five votes, the measure to allow juveniles serving life without parole to have their sentences reviewed by a judge after fifteen years failed in the Assembly. The Huffington Post reports (complete with links):

[T]the United States is the only country that sends people under 18 to prison for life with no parole. “No other country sentences kids to die in prison,” said Yee’s chief of staff, Adam Keigwin. In California, juvenile offenders are ineligible for a death penalty sentence, but they can be sentenced to life with no parole, guaranteeing that they will die in prison. SB9 aimed to change that by offering a chance to appeal if a defendant served a minimum of 25 years and showed remorse and serious change.

The arguments against the bill were victim-centered. For various reasons we explained in an earlier post, this is political rhetoric more than realistic concern. What a disappointment, albeit not as great as the disappointment over the demise of the death penalty abolition bill. Overall, a disappointing week for Californian criminal justice.

SB9, Review of Juvenile LWOP: A Few Misperceptions Corrected

Our posts about SB9 yielded several reader comments, some of which I had to refrain from publishing because of their incendiary tone. I thought it might be worthwhile to tackle some of the misapprehensions regarding SB9. While I think SB9 is a great idea and endorse it wholeheartedly, I am not officially affiliated, politically or financially, with Senator Yee or anyone else involved. Therefore, consider this an academic’s opinion, rather than political propaganda.

This proposal sets dangerous people loose in the streets.

The proposal addresses only two hundred inmates or so, and none of them is being set loose in the street quite yet. What the bill does is allow a judge to review again the case of juveniles sentenced to LWOP after they have already served at least a fifteen-year sentence. And even then, the judge will only have the ability to modify the sentence to twenty-five to life. Overall, it’s a fairly mild proposition.

Aren’t these people dangerous?

Well, some of them might be, and some of them might not. It will be up to the judge to review their history, when petitioned to do so, and to assess whether it is risky to make them eligible for parole. There will be discretion about this. What we know about the trajectory of criminal careers tends to suggest that, for many folks who committed crime in their teens, age tends to “mellow people out” and they become less dangerous as they age.

If it’s only a few hundred people, why is this such a big deal?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal at all. A handful of inmates will be serving a very long prison term, rather than an even longer one. But the difference to the individual, in terms of offering a ray of hope, is immense.

Doesn’t that teach juveniles that it’s okay to murder?

Not at all. Twenty-five to life is a very long time for a young person. And that’s assuming that juveniles even think about the repercussions when committing crimes, many of which are expressive crimes rather than cold, calculated ones.

We’re not really saving a lot of money by letting these people out earlier than expected, are we?

That’s impossible to answer accurately without proper data. However, it stands to reason that the older our inmate population is, the more we’ll be spending on its health care, which is already approximately one third of our correctional budget. Letting someone out when he or she is in his or her fifties, rather than letting him or her die behind bars, might spare us some of the costlier inmates and allow us to focus resources on others who need urgent care.

They committed murder and deserve never to see the light of day again.

Well, that is a legitimate opinion, but what someone “deserves” depends on your definition of just desert. Spending twenty-five to life behind bars, subject to violence, overcrowding, and prisons devoid of rehabilitative programming is very far from being a walk in the park.

What about the victims’ families?
That is very much a matter of personal feeling. Many families of murder victims feel immense amounts of rage and sadness and translate those to a wish that the perpetrator of their tragedy rot behind bars. That is understandable. But it doesn’t mean that the state has to grant these wishes to the letter. Moreover, there are plenty of families of victims who do not derive satisfaction from revenge or retribution, and would much rather the money spent on incarceration be spent on more and better homicide investigation, to prevent future tragedies. There are many people who feel this way; the media exposes you to the vocal, angry ones, and they do not necessarily represent everyone.

If the legislators think LWOP sentences should be reviewed, why not abolish LWOP for juveniles altogether?

At this point, Supreme Court case law regards LWOP for juveniles as constitutional for murder (not for other offenses.) Maybe future cases will follow the rationale of Roper v. Simmons and extend the abolition of LWOP to murder as well. But this is an opportunity to do something, now.

For a matter pertaining to so few people, this is eating up plenty of public energy and discourse. Why are we dealing with this, rather than with death penalty abolition and fighting mass incarceration?

Because this is easier to achieve, and these folks need some attention, too. But there is a bill on the CA ballot to abolish the death penalty. There’s also a bill to reform the Three Strikes Law. And it’s about time.

SB9 Discussed in Today’s Chronicle

This morning’s Chron features a front-page discussion of Senator Leland Yee’s SB9, which would allow juveniles sentenced to life without parole to have their sentences reviewed by a judge.

This is a very tame, limited version of the proposal.

The California measure, which Yee has tried to make law several times before, is not as ambitious: It would let inmates, after 15 years behind bars, petition the court to change their sentence to 25 years to life, with the possibility of parole. That means that even if the court agreed to modify a sentence, there is no guarantee the inmate would get out: The offender would have to wait until 25 years have been served, then could appeal to the state’s parole board for release. To request a reduced sentence, the offender would have to “describe his or her remorse” and prove he or she has worked toward rehabilitation.

Interestingly, as is often the case with parole-related proposals, the possibility that someone who maintains his or her innocence might want to make use of the review mechanism is not even considered.

The Benefits and Discontents of Incremental Reform

A few recent events have made me think about the advantages and drawbacks of reforming the correctional system incrementally, that is–by “fixing” one aspect of it at a time. Two things in particular came to mind.

The first is the tension between death penalty activism and life imprisonment, or long-term imprisonment, activism. Last year, at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty meeting, I talked about the perils limiting activism only to the grounds that would “work”, such as innocence and cost. In the same meeting, Senator Mark Leno, for whose good intentions and immense contributions to correctional reform I have much respect, said that  abolishing the death penalty would not hamper public safety, as we could still throw dangerous convicted felons into prisons for the rest of their lives. This idea, of limiting the struggle to the death penalty under  the assumption that life imprisonment was somehow okay or even advisable, worked well in a room in which people were gathered as a narrow coalition – there were representatives of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in the room, as well as law enforcement agents who oppose the death penalty but are otherwise on board with law and order policies. So, politically, narrowing the struggle to “just” the death penalty is necessary to bring together all these groups of activists. However, narrowing the focus of the struggle to the death penalty under the argument that life imprisonment in a supermax facility, say, under SHU conditions, is not as bad, is a severe blow to the struggle against isolation, debriefing, and other humiliating conditions suffered by inmates who were not sentenced to death–precisely the conditions leading to the hunger strike, now entering its third week. Is this why the strike is getting so little press coverage? Because, in California, it is now politically easier to stomach a potential death penalty abolition than humane conditions for presumed gang members? Both of these goals are worth fighting for, and I wonder whether patience and incremental gains here will be to the inmates’ advantage or detriment.

The second is SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act, which for all its noble purpose and fancy name affects the sentencing of very few juveniles in CA, and less than 3,000 nationwide should it become national policy. Happily, SB9 recently passed 5 to 2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting; that is a very good thing, and it may make a meaningful difference in the lives of the few young men and women behind bars with no glimmer of hope for freedom in their future. However, as some blog commentators mentioned here in the last few days, the proposal is limited in effect to those juveniles, rather than giving more hope to juveniles sentenced to life with parole (say, 25 to life) or to otherwise lengthy sentences. Both groups of inmates – and the second group is, of course, more numerous – are worth fighting for, and again, I hope the incremental system will work to the benefit of the second group over time.

Changes and reform in criminal justice policies have historically been incremental. SB9 would not have existed without Roper v. Simmons, after which many activists may have asked themselves why it made sense to separate the fight . Similarly, the current proposal to end the death penalty in CA would not have come to life without years of moratoria and incremental struggles about amounts of this or that drug. And none of this would have been achieved, in my opinion, without the mundane, gray backdrop of the financial crisis, serving as a constant reminder to activists and disinterested citizens alike that we cannot afford mass incarceration and punitive extravaganzas. The current hunger strike in Pelican Bay, which I hope will finally start attracting more media now (mainstream news coverage of this event of seminal importance has been pitiful, with the exception of the L.A. Times), might not have come into existence had the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata not given inmates hope for change.

So, the revolution will not come in a shiny parade. It will happen stone by stone, proposal by proposal, shutting down the mechanism not because all policymakers will suddenly come to the realization that what we have done is excessive, brutal and inhumane, but because we will gradually be unable to afford more and more pieces of the puzzle. It will be less dramatic, but the end result will be no less gratifying, and it is still worth fighting for, step by step, brick by brick.

KPFA Report on the Juvenile Justice System

Today’s Morning Mix on KPFA included an interesting coverage of the status quo regarding juvenile justice institutions in California.

The story included interviews with Selena Teji from CJCJ and Bryan Lalock from Bay Area Legal Aid. As Teji and Lalock explained, counties offer a continuum of institutions, ranging from electronic monitoring, through community service, group homes, juvenile hall commitments, to fully locked county-run facilities (camps and ranches). The state level institutions are designed to house the “worst of the worst” and unsuitable for the needs of the juvenile population. The infrastructure is run down and violence runs rampant. There has been extensive litigation addressing the inability of state institutions to provide mental health settings and offer reentry services (the latter are much easier on the county level, where public defense has a better interface with community institutions, and where juveniles are closer to the family).

Given the atrocious status of state institutions, they would have to be replaced, but our budgetary difficulties make that impossible; initially, Governor Brown wanted to do away with all state facilities, but was faced with opposition. The new plan is a “buy back” option, in which countries could receive the money and could either handle inmates within the county or pay the state to house them in state facilities. The choice might be different between bigger and smaller counties. However, for all counties, money is an important factor; state-run institutions have exceedingly high recidivism rates.

Finally, should voters decline to reaffirm the vehicle tax, the realignment may be off, and the situation will not improve.

Listen to the whole show – it also featured a discussion of the prison industrial complex.