So I was particularly interested to see that in California, the "Little Hoover" commission this week endorsed exactly that approach - essentially abolishing California's juvie prisons and forcing counties to carry the entire load. California already moved all but 1,500 or so juvenile offenders back to the counties in response to a court decree in 2007. (See the report.) From the commission's letter to the Governor:
In shifting responsibility to the counties for hundreds of California’s youth offenders, the state recognized that its juvenile justice system cannot be reformed without radical change.California is using block grants to counties to enforce use of best practices via contract, in much the same way the Texas Legislature made new money available to adult probation departments through grants that must be used for progressive sanctions and diversion tactics. That's worked surprisingly well in Texas, with a few notable exceptions. But in neither state are counties prepared to take on the offenders currently housed in state lockups. According to the Little Hoover report:
Though prompted by cost concerns, the realignment of responsibilities to the counties was the right policy move, one previously recommended by this Commission and others. Many counties have demonstrated that they can provide programs and treatment to youth offenders who need to turn their lives around in settings that allow them to reintegrate more successfully into their communities.
Once realignment is complete, the number of youth offenders in state hands will shrink to fewer than 1,500. The annual cost of providing services to each ward, however, next year will rise to $252,000. This startling figure reflects the overhead expenses of a system built to serve a far larger population, the cost of reforms required under a court-supervised consent decree and the complex needs of these seriously troubled youth. Californians may fairly ask what they are getting for this outlay and whether other strategies can better deliver public safety and youth rehabilitation. The state has made slow, yet undeniable, progress. Still, advocates for youth offenders, frustrated by the pace of reform, have asked a court to place the juvenile justice system in receivership.
Whatever the court’s decision, the state’s costs per ward likely will increase as juvenile programming and treatment services are expanded and its crumbling facilities continue to age. The state’s master plan for renovating or replacing its juvenile facilities, promised to legislators, is long overdue. The delay may mean that the cost of bringing California’s facilities in line with current programming requirements or replacing them is unaffordable, particularly in light of the current budget deficit.
The prospect of ever-higher outlays for an ever-smaller juvenile population in state custody should prompt policy-makers to extend realignment to completion. The Commission recommends that the state begin planning now to ultimately eliminate its juvenile justice operations and create regional rehabilitative facilities for high-risk, high-need offenders to be leased to and run by the counties.
County probation departments are in no position to immediately take on the remaining serious, violent and older youth offender population, as they are still adjusting to the abrupt implementation of the 2007 realignment legislation as well as the uncertainty of state funding given California’s estimated $15 billion deficit for 2008-09.12 Counties could, however, take on this responsibility, given time and resources to plan, develop and contract for programs; adequate time to establish regionally based facilities; and, given a dedicated source of money to pay for these programs and facilities.The commission suggested that, with assistance, counties could be prepared to take over all incarceration duties for juveniles by 2011.
Texas faces a similar problem to California in terms of its skyrocketing cost per youth, though California's costs are so high ($250,000 per year per kid) they sound like a caricature. The last I heard, TYC's cost per youth had risen to around $60-65K per year. By reducing the number of youth but slightly increasing the amount of overhead (because of new oversight), Texas like California has seen its cost per kid soar since TYC entered conservatorship, a fact which Sen. Whitmire and others have cited as a reason to get rid of the agency entirely.
If Texas is serious about heading down this road, we should all be paying attention to California's experiment. They're already shifting juvie justice responsibilities downstream to the counties and where they find trouble, there's a good chance Texas will run into some, too.
See related coverage from AP and the Sacramento Bee, via Sentencing Law & Policy.