Wasting Tax Dollars: Public Relations and the California Youth Corrections System
By Daniel Macallair
After nearly 25 years in the criminal justice field, I never cease to be shocked at the volume of misinformation spewed by some correctional bureaucracies to hype their performance or justify their existence. Nowhere is this more evident than here in California, where our highly dysfunctional youth corrections system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, – formally known as the California Youth Authority – has launched a tax-payer funded campaign to polish its tarnished image.
The apparent purpose of the campaign is to convince the state’s 58 county juvenile courts that a miraculous change has occurred within the correctional facilities and that Judges need not fear committing more youth to their custody. All this is occurring in the context of the Farrell v Cate lawsuit – a class action case brought against the state’s youth corrections system for its historic practice of placing youths in poorly managed and gang ravaged institutions with little rehabilitation. Recognizing its tenuous legal position, the State of California admitted its failures, entered in to a consent decree in 2004, and agreed to institute a complete and comprehensive restructuring of what a team of independent correctional experts decried as a “system broken almost everywhere you look.”
Six years later the system continues to struggle and progress on major reforms, remains frustratingly slow. Although the population in the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is now at a historic low of 1400 and yearly per capita inmate costs exceed $235,000, the state has shown little capacity to implement major reforms. Among the most essential reforms is the creation of an Integrated Behavioral Treatment Model (IBTM) – an approach that has been pioneered in the Washington, Colorado, and Missouri youth corrections systems. The IBTM represents an approach to institutional care that stresses rehabilitation and reduces the emphasis on custodial care.
The Farrell v Cate plaintiffs and court appointed experts have emphasized the IBTM as a path for improving treatment in California’s beleaguered system. Unfortunately, despite the urgings of the plaintiff’s attorneys and the best efforts of the court appointed experts, the DJJ has proven unable to develop, or even comprehend, the essence of an IBTM system. In an April 2009 letter to the court, the plaintiff’s attorney highlighted the apparent inability of the DJJ to institute even modest reforms:
“Similarly, here defendant has had years to develop the IBTM, but had failed to do so and there is no prospect that this requirement of the Safety and Welfare Plan will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future.”
Finally, out of frustration and resignation, the judge overseeing the Farrell v. Cate lawsuit reassigned responsibility for IBTM development to the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency in July 2009. We are now awaiting the completion of the written plan.
Although the state clearly failed in its efforts to develop the IBTM, this fact has not dissuaded DJJ staff from claiming otherwise. In fact, the DJJ has been dispatching representatives to juvenile courts around the state to claim successful implementation of the IBTM. I was involved in such a case recently in a Bay Area juvenile court, where I was called to testify for the purpose of countering the inflated claims made by a DJJ staff under oath about their use of the IBTM.
In this hearing I faced an indignant prosecutor who was certain I could not be telling the truth since the DJJ staff had testified that such a program was operational. After citing the official documents confirming my points, the judge rejected the DJJ testimony and did not sentence the youth to a DJJ institution.
Following the hearing, I contacted the Farrell v Cate plaintiff attorneys regarding this apparent misinformation campaign. I was told that the issue had been raised in the past and would be raised with DJJ again. However, a month later it appears that DJJ administrators are undeterred as evidenced by a March 2010 agency fact sheet claiming credit for implementing the IBTM three years ago.
In addition to sending staff to testify at court hearings, the DJJ recently produced a taxpayer funded video depicting the agency as a model of rehabilitation that is now being shown in courts around the state. Nowhere in the video is the current lawsuit mentioned. Instead the video attempts to recast long-standing programs and depict them as new innovations.
Finally, the most recent effort by DJJ to portray itself in a favorable light is the issuance of a report and press release that claims they are 87% in compliance with the Farrell v Cate lawsuit as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. This is among the most dishonest and misleading of all claims. Essentially, the DJJ devised a simple formula where they combined hundreds of court-mandated changes and gave each equal value. For example, under the DJJ formula a relatively simple task such as the development of chaplaincy internship program at one of their institutions was given the same weight as a comprehensive system-wide reform such as the development of the IBTP.
The DJJ campaign to inflate the agency’s accomplishment is part of an ongoing effort by the DJJ administration and its current director, Mr. Bernie Warner. In December 2007 at a public meeting in Sacramento, I asked Mr. Warner why he was allowing DJJ staff to present testimony that contradicted the state’s official statements to the court in the Farrell v Cate lawsuit. Mr. Warner’s response was “I don’t want there to be the impression that things are not getting better.”
While it is not unusual for correctional bureaucracies to embellish accomplishments or fabricate achievements, DJJ’s current claims of success go beyond an acceptable range. With the state confronting the worst fiscal crisis in 80 years, spending limited tax dollars on a spurious public relations campaign to support a failed state agency must be questioned. In the last two years the prestigious Little Hoover Commission and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office have issued reports calling for DJJ’s closure.
Both reports cite the decreasing number of youths being committed to DJJ by juvenile courts and the increased capacity of county juvenile justice systems to provide a broader array of services. More importantly, since the state is in no position financially to achieve compliance with the Farrell Lawsuit, there are few legitimate reasons remaining for maintaining this old broken system. It is time for the legislature to act and adopt the recommendations of the Little Hoover Commission and the Legislative Analyst and close DJJ.
Daniel Macallair is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and serves on the faculty of San Francisco State University’s Department of Criminal Justice Studies. He was a member of the Little Hoover Commission’s advisory panel on reforming California’s youth corrections system.