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SF foots bill for state-run juvenile facilities

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San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center. (Michael Ares/2015 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Despite a steady decline in the number of youth sent to California correctional facilities, the state could spend more than $300,000 for each young person in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Just nine youths from San Francisco were committed to state correctional facilities as of December 2017, down from about 108 youths in 1995, according to Mike Males, a chief researcher with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The nonprofit’s mission is to “reduce society’s reliance on incarceration as a solution to social problems.”

A report released by the organization last month shows the rising costs of the Division of Juvenile Justice, California’s state youth correctional system, stand in stark contrast with a steady statewide decline in youth populations committed to its facilities.

SEE RELATED: Youth commissioner pushes SF to reduce incarceration rate for young adults

Taxpayers in San Francisco and other counties with low DJJ commitments ultimately foot the bill for many counties that rely on state-run juvenile facilities, according to CJCJ Policy Analyst Maureen Washburn, who authored the report.

Washburn explained that counties only reimburse the state for a small share of DJJ costs.

“Counties that send young people to DJJ [from juvenile court] are required to pay the state $24,000 a year for each young person, that’s a small fraction of the full cost of [more than] $300,000,” Washburn said. “It’s up to state to cover the full cost, on the backs of taxpayers.”

The California Department of Finance initially projected an average of 779 youth would be held in state facilities daily in the 2016-17 fiscal year; that number was reduced to 615 halfway through the year.

This fiscal year, California will likely spend a record-high $317,771 per person in DJJ facilities, though earlier estimates predicted a cost of $252,041 per youth. The discrepancy is attributable to the “lower than predicted DJJ youth populations,” according to the report.

The 2018-19 Governor’s budget proposes spending $190.3 billion in state funds, as well as expanding DJJ to a larger population of young adults with a budget increase of nearly $4 million.

State spending on correctional facilities rose by 13 percent, despite DJJ facilities operating at about one-third of their design capacity and facing a steady decline in population over the last six years. The division “has maintained fairly static staffing levels and high fixed costs,” resulting in three consecutive years of budget growth, according to the report.

A request for comment on the rising costs was not returned by press time, but DJJ spokesperson Ike Dodson said in an email that the division “provides education and treatment to California’s youthful offenders up to the age of 25 who have the most serious criminal backgrounds and most intense treatment needs.”

Reforms over the last decade and a half, such as state funding for counties to operate youth facilities, have shifted more responsibility of managing juvenile offenders to individual counties.

“What has been shown in research to make a difference for young people is not to be placed in large, congregate, far away facilities but to be kept closer to home in community-based or county-run alternatives to state system that allow them to maintain close connections to family, friends and the community,” Washburn said.

But demand for space at local facilities is also waning.

In June 2017, CJCJ counted 8,195 empty beds across the state’s county juvenile facilities, and youth arrests have fallen continuously since 2007.

In San Francisco, the total arrests of youth under 18 dropped by 80 percent, from 4,271 in 1995 to 840 in 2016, according to Males.

“A small part of these massive declines was due to the drop in young populations, and drug and property felonies are affected by changes in state laws,” Males said.

Recent data shows that San Francisco made only five DJJ commitments out of 454 juvenile felony arrests.

A local focus on diversions programs and alternatives to institutionalization have resulted in San Francisco being among the counties with low rates of sending youth to state correctional facilities.

“Our judges are very enlightened and San Francisco is very resource rich,” said Patricia Lee, managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Juvenile Division, who is credited with transforming The City’s juvenile justice system with a focus on rehabilitation. “We have been virtually 99 percent successful in contesting serious DJJ recommendations over the past 30 years.”

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