"I think the tough-on-crime philosophy has run its course," says Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a public-interest firm in San Francisco. "The evidence is now clear that rehabilitation works, and that it's safer, less expensive and more humane to have a system that emphasizes treatment rather than punishment. Those are not opinions, those are facts." In 2003 the Prison Law Office filed a major taxpayer lawsuit against the CYA alleging abuse and institutional incompetence, and seeking a comprehensive overhaul. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger settled the case in 2004 when he signed a consent decree acknowledging serious problems. The Governator has since promised to "blow up the box," a favorite shorthand for taking action on prison reform.
After a bit of foot-dragging, the Division of Juvenile Justice is now incorporating progressive strategies from other states and moving forward with an ambitious remedial plan. The ninety-page draft proposal released in April appropriately highlights the need to reduce the level of violence and fear in the institutions, and calls for sweeping changes in all areas--from revamping the management structure to improving data analysis to standardizing disciplinary procedures like time adds. The draft also details the technical steps that should be taken to restore a rehabilitative culture, with particular emphasis on shrinking unit size and hiring a stable of specially trained psychologists.
The publication of the plan brought a welcome whiff of optimism to the legislature. In the past lawmakers have been reluctant to throw money at what some call a "black hole." But on May 18 the Senate Budget Committee, perhaps benefiting from a surprise windfall of tax revenues, approved almost $80 million in reform funding for the next fiscal year (another $30 million in ongoing funds had already been secured). As Bernard Warner points out, a plan of this scope requires time and consistent leadership. In a department known for its high turnover, however, commitment is a rare commodity. Warner, who signed on to head the Division of Juvenile Justice last summer, has already been promoted. As undersecretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, he now splits his time between the juvenile side, where he manages a $500 million budget, and adult corrections, which recently proposed a budget of $8.2 billion. Warner insists his priority remains with the juveniles, but the reform plan now accounts for only a portion of his responsibilities.
Some of the state's strongest youth advocates--including Books Not Bars and Gloria Romero, the Democratic majority leader in the State Senate--correctly point out that the plan does not go far enough. It does not prioritize alternatives to incarceration, closing outmoded facilities or equipping local communities with the tools to keep troubled teens at home. Tellingly, it placates the CCPOA by recommending positions for up to 300 new guards. In short, it is a proposal to retrofit a failing system rather than to develop a new one. Nevertheless, there is a clear consensus among researchers, managers, psychologists and staff that the plan, if implemented, would vastly improve the conditions of confinement in California's youth prisons.
In the meantime, wards like Lee Moua are languishing. A stocky 20-year-old sentenced at 16 for armed robbery, Moua was released last October and sent to a group home for parole. But in January he absconded, and in March he was picked up in Merced, where he used to hang out with an Asian gang called the Men of Destruction. He spent the next few months at Chad awaiting a "disposition hearing" to determine whether he was fit for release. When I met him he was seated across the table from Joyce Arredondo, tapping his foot and nervously pleading his case. He was sober and had been looking for a job, he said. His parole agent at the home was verbally and physically abusive, but when he tried to contact a supervisor to ask for a reassignment, nobody responded. So he fled, and went to Atlanta to stay with his aunt.
"While I'm concerned about the allegation," Arredondo said, "it doesn't excuse your behavior." He had other choices, she explained. He could have contacted someone at the parole board, or called the governor's office. "You didn't make good decisions, young man," she said. When Arredondo made a motion to revoke Moua's parole, his cuffed hands fell in his lap.