Young Adult Prisons Are Not the Answer

Young Adult PrisonsIn his sweeping history of juvenile corrections in California, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) Executive Director, Daniel Macallair, asserts that, “[t]hroughout the history of California juvenile justice, the typical response to institutional abuse was to argue for new and improved institutions. Efforts to redesign the architecture, restructure programming, introduce new leadership, and change the population did little to alter the daily reality of life in a congregate institution.”

On April 21, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) received a proposal for the development of just such a “new and improved institution” — the California Leadership Academy (CLA). If approved, the CLA would expand the state correctional system and subject incarcerated youth to yet another attempt at superficial reform.

The CLA proposal, developed through an $865,000 planning grant, recommends that CDCR develop a third prison system in California – one serving 18-25-year-olds. To start, CDCR would pledge hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of two, 256-bed “pilot” facilities.

Figure 1: Whittier State School design (left) and proposed CLA design (right)
Young Adult Prisons

Source: Daniel Macallair, After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of Twenty-First-Century Reform (2015), Campbell Consulting, Reducing Recidivism in California (2016).

As proposed, the plan is strikingly similar to the original California Youth Authority (now the Division of Juvenile Justice), which began as an attempt to redesign youth corrections, but devolved into a system beset by violence and abuse. Figure 1 compares the blueprints of an original California Youth Authority facility to the design of the CLA. Both plans are rooted in the mistaken belief that changes in institutional design necessarily produce better conditions and outcomes for youth.

In reality, the CLA would require Californians to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a correctional model that defies best practices and runs counter to trends in crime, incarceration, and legislative reform.

The CLA pilot would cost California $124.4 million for the construction of two facilities and $53-$61 million annually for their operation. The first two CLA facilities would be built on state lands and financed through the lease-leaseback method, a financing option that has been subject to recent legal challenge for its role in fostering conflicts of interest.

Figure 2: Youth and young adult arrests rates, per 100,000
Young Adult Prisons

Source: California Office of the Attorney General (2014), CJSC Statistice: Arrest; California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit (2014)

Though the CLA seeks to reduce rates of recidivism through a remotely located, large population facility, research shows that small, local programming is more effective at meeting the needs of youth. Moreover, the CLA facilities, which would house more than 250 young people, contradict the standards set in 2003 by the American Correctional Association, which dictate that facilities for youth should have no more than 150 beds. Without a clear basis in research, evidence of the CLA’s effectiveness remains predicated on a future outcome evaluation, the results of which will not be known for six years, at which point the state will have invested nearly half a billion dollars and permanently expanded prison capacity.

California has already spent $2.5 billion building and enhancing juvenile and adult facilities at the local level, and, each year, the state invests millions of dollars in county-level programming for youth through the Youthful Offender Block Grant and the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act. The CLA would reverse this substantial investment in realigning the justice system.

Investment in CLA facilities is particularly wasteful given the number of vacant beds already available in county facilities throughout the state. In early 2015, California counties reported an excess of more than 6,000 beds in their juvenile halls. Rather than construct new facilities, the state could allow program participants to remain in specialized local facilities where they could stay closer to family and community.

Figure 3: Division of Juvenile Justice and State Prison Populations
Young Adult Prisons

Source: California department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Fall 2015 Population Projections (2015).

Trends in arrest and incarceration do not support an expansion of the state system. Arrest rates for youth and young adults have fallen precipitously over the last several decades, with dramatic reductions since 2008 (Figure 2). During this period, the populations of CDCR facilities for youth and adults have also declined. Expanding the state system when arrest rates and institutional populations are low would needlessly target California’s safest generation.

CLA facility construction would saddle Californians with the cost of needless institutional expansion – an expansion that would create an ongoing fiscal burden and reverse California’s progress toward community-based corrections. Prioritizing local, community-based alternatives is the most effective way to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. At a time when youth crime is low, California should invest in proven local solutions.

Maureen Washburn
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice