Michael, a black teenager who was recently arrested for arson, is trying his best to offer service with a smile. It’s lunchtime in the Delta Room, the no-frills cafeteria for staff and visitors at the state juvenile prison complex in Stockton, California. Michael (not his real name) is wearing a plastic apron over the standard-issue uniform: white T-shirt, blue slacks. Like the other waiters and chef’s helpers milling around, he is learning food service through the vocational training program at the nearby DeWitt Nelson correctional facility. He diligently takes our orders, making a point to repeat them before heading back to the kitchen. A minute later he returns with bad news about the French fries. “Um, the fryer’s broken,” he says.
We settle for chips with our white-bread sandwiches. Over lunch parole board commissioner Joyce Arredondo, an old-school disciplinarian who has worked with at-risk youth for many years, explains her approach to juvenile justice. “Just because they’re juveniles doesn’t mean their crimes are any less heinous,” she says. “Some of these kids are offending as early as 9, 10, 11. We need to hit ’em hard the first time, and give them time to mature, to internalize it. It hurts, but that’s how it goes.”
Yes, it hurts. And it’s failing. The state is mandated to treat, train and rehabilitate its youthful offenders, but in reality the correctional system is making matters worse for them. A state-commissioned report released in April found that adversarial relations between staff and youth (commonly called wards) are perpetuating a violent, anti-therapeutic culture. Education and treatment consistently take a back seat to crisis management. Poor training, limited resources and overstuffed housing units prevent staff from providing the required mental-health and counseling services–and when these programs are offered, they’re sorely deficient. Even the facilities are overdue for repair. “This is not a system that needs tinkering around the edges,” the report concluded. “This is a system that is broken almost everywhere you look.”
The numbers bear this out. The cost per year to house and treat each of the more than 3,000 wards in state confinement is a pricey $115,129, a startling figure when you consider how little the system has to show for it. Lengths of stay are nearly triple the national average, and the recidivism rate is sky-high (some estimates run up to 90 percent). It should come as no surprise that in April the adult side of the California correctional system projected a spike of 23,000 more adult felons over the next five years. This expected rise can be attributed in part to population increase, but certainly the widespread failures on the juvenile side play a role, as well. Rather than create the opportunity for troubled teens to return to their communities as law-abiding adults, the state is preparing them for a life in confinement.
“I understand people’s impatience with a system that’s been deteriorating for more than ten years,” says Bernard Warner, head of the Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth Authority). “I think people want to see change, and we’re going to make it happen. But it takes time and consistent leadership.” Working with a team of national experts, Warner is developing a comprehensive plan that, he believes, will realign the state’s priorities toward rehabilitation. But by now many advocates harbor grave doubts about the state’s ability to implement serious reform.