The way California has been treating its juvenile offenders is nothing short of shameful, not to mention counterproductive and wasteful. If the state's aim is to turn troubled youth into adult criminals, it couldn't have come up with a better system - a full 75 percent of former inmates are arrested within three years of their release.
Fortunately, a dramatic shift in the structure and philosophy of California youth prisons is about to take place. A lawsuit settlement approved a week ago by the Schwarzenegger administration will emphasize rehabilitation, therapy and treatment over punishment. It is major, positive and long overdue change.
The 2002 lawsuit was filed on behalf of state taxpayers, alleging that the California Youth Authority was improperly spending taxpayer money because it had diverged so greatly from its original mission. While former Gov. Gray Davis fought the lawsuit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has wisely acknowledged the system's shortcomings and is working to change them.
Administration officials, much to their credit, have been visiting successful youth prisons in other states for ideas on how to transform California's. Some of those ideas, such as intensive therapy, positive reinforcement and peer counseling, will be incorporated into California's new approach. Importantly, the settlement also means that the recommended changes will be monitored and enforced by the courts.
The CYA was never intended to be a small-scale version of adult prisons, rife with violence, but that's exactly what it has become. A federal investigation last fall found widespread violence, along with serious deficiencies in health care, education, mental health treatment and suicide prevention. There have been seven suicides and hundreds of attempts in the past five years.
Though the practice was recently halted, youthful offenders were routinely kept in isolation for long stretches of time. A lawsuit brought by the family of a former inmate alleges that he was kept in isolation 23 hours a day for seven months, and given only meals that had been liquified in a blender. A videotape released last year showed two corrections counselors beating two inmates as they lay motionless on the floor.
The settlement gives the CYA specific, enforceable orders. Among other changes, officials can no longer confine inmates in isolation for long periods, and must release them daily for education, therapy, meals and recreation - although dangerous inmates will be separated from others. Inmates will be housed as close to home as possible to encourage family involvement. Employees and counselors, who must now be trained in rehabilitation and treatment, will be encouraged to use positive reinforcement for good behavior instead of just punishing the bad.
The CYA was designed to steer wayward youths away from a lifetime of crime and incarceration. Instead the system pushes them in just that direction.
Implementing the changes outlined in this week's settlement won't be easy, and they won't come without some expense. Considering the price of failure in wasted lives, increased crime, and court and prison costs down the line the reforms are a highly prudent investment.
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