In 2005, California's juvenile prison system got a face lift. The name changed from CYA, short for California Youth Authority, to the Division of Juvenile Justice or DJJ. And many policies began to change along with the name.
Today DJJ's population is just over a thousand wards, or inmates, down from a high of 10,000 in 1996. And of the 11 state facilities, only three remain. Many of the reforms stem from a 2003 ruling by the Superior Court of Alameda County that found the state juvenile justice system to be poorly managed and unsafe, and while no one can argue that today's system is the same as it was a decade ago, many critics argue that state facilities remain unequipped to manage juvenile detention and reform. On top of that, Governor Jerry Brown is pushing to close state facilities entirely in the face of unprecedented budget constraints.
Turnstyle spoke with Bill Sessa, the Director of Communications at DJJ, who hopes to dispel what he sees as outdated stereotypes about the way the state manages juvenile justice.
Turnstyle: How did the lawsuit by the Superior Court of Alameda against CYA change the institution?
Bill Sessa: It completely and dramatically changed what the Youth Authority had become. Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s even, California was a national leader in juvenile rehabilitation. Unfortunately, in the 80s and 90s the state got caught up in tough-on-crime sentencing and a number of changes that just overloaded the system. The Youth Authority had too many youth in facilities with too little rehabilitation. So, we had a larger population than the Youth Authority had had before, with much more violent backgrounds, and we became more of a custody arrangement than we did rehabilitation.
The lawsuit, which is known as Farrell, is overseen by the Alameda Superior Court and it opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that we needed to change DJJ so that it got back to being a model of rehabilitation and not just a custody place for juvenile offenders. As a result practically every part of the Division of Juvenile Justice, as it is now known, is much closer to the national model that California used to be for rehabilitation.
Turnstyle: Can you give me some concrete examples of changes you’ve seen at DJJ facilities in the last few years?
Sessa: One of the biggest changes in the DJJ is the reduced size of our population. We have in California long believed that most juveniles do better in rehabilitation when they are closer to their families. Their families are a big part of their rehabilitation. Beginning in the late 90s, and really accelerating after the Farrell lawsuit, counties assumed more responsibility for the average juvenile offender and DJJ was reserved for the youth who have the most serious treatment needs and who committed the most serious crimes. Instead of 10,000 wards in eleven different facilities, we have about 1,000 wards in three facilities and that is the biggest physical change that you would see.
But beyond that there is now a very strong emphasis on rehabilitation. Youth are housed in small units based on the kinds of treatment needs that the youth have. The staff has changed so that the vast majority of our staff are treatment professionals, they are not custody staff. We have youth counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, other mental health professionals, medical professionals and teachers. Everything about the DJJ is different than it was even ten years ago.
Governor Jerry Brown is pushing to close all state run juvenile justice facilities. What are the pitfalls with that strategy?
Sessa: Well, we only know that we are here to treat the youth that we have and we are continuing to do that unless that changes.
The outcome of that proposal still isn’t known because not all counties are the same. You have some urban counties that have very sophisticated juvenile treatment programs that might be able to address the needs of the youth. There are other counties that don’t. Those discussions are continuing and so until the budget is formally adopted we don’t know what the final outcome of that will be.
One of the advantages of juvenile law in California is that we supervise juveniles to the age of 25. That means that if we get a youth in our system at the age of 16 or 17, who committed a very serious crime, we have more time to treat them and push them toward rehabilitative life before they go back out into the community. So we don’t have to release them at the age of 18 or the age of 21. Without the DJJ you have much more stark definition of whose a juvenile and whose treated as an adult.
Turnstyle: Some common arguments against DJJ are claims of abusive staff, overuse of solitary confinement, and poor educational opportunities. How do you respond to that?
Sessa: Well the fact is that all of those things are stereotypes of an organization that does not exist anymore. In the first place, every youth in our facilities that does not already have a high school diploma, goes to high school. We operate an accredited high school district. So they get the same education inside our facility that they would get if they were in their local community. And we look at a high school diploma or GED as a basic requirement for parole release.
Second of all, protecting the welfare of our youth, making our facilities safe, was one of the very first and most important things that we did in the reforms that were brought about by the settlement agreement. And that’s critical because the only way that a youth can learn, the only way they can benefit from the counseling, or the treatment, or the classroom education that we provide is by not having to look over their shoulders and worry about their safety. And we are gauged on that every single day.
This interview was originally published on YouthRadio.org on March 29, 2012.