It is time to rethink juvenile justice in Yolo County and repurpose our underused juvenile hall. The Yolo County Board of Supervisors is currently considering a proposal to re-purpose our juvenile hall for 18 to 24 months. The proposal would include a contract with a nearby county to provide secure setting for the small number of Yolo youth who require that service.
Nearly 15 years ago the County of Yolo put the finishing touches on its new 90-bed Juvenile Hall. The facility consists of three separate pods each containing 30 beds. It replaced a 30-bed facility that was in very bad shape. Since opening, occupancy of the Yolo County Juvenile Hall has never reached its planned capacity. Not once. For the past several years, the average daily population has declined significantly from 16 in 2017, to 12 in 2018, to less than 5 during the first four months of 2019.
Even as Yolo County and other counties throughout the state were bringing new juvenile facilities on line, arrests of California youth were declining precipitously. For four consecutive decades the numbers of youth ages 10-17 incarcerated in California have plummeted. This is, of course, great news.
On any given day California counties maintain 12,900 beds for juveniles with about 4,100 in custody; nearly 9000 juvenile hall beds are unused each day. Sacramento County, for example operates a Juvenile Hall designed for 450 youth with an average of about 120 in custody. The average annual per person costs of caring and housing the estimated 4,100 youth in custody have doubled and in some cases tripled.
The advent of new approaches to juvenile justice are largely responsible for the decrease in incarcerated youth. The State has moved decisively away from punitive punishment and incarceration. In their place the justice system has employed treatment and rehabilitation with outstanding results. One recent study found that incarcerating youth increased the likelihood that they would wind up as incarcerated adults by 23 percent. With this in mind, the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors decided this week to close their juvenile hall by 2021 and rely instead on community based approaches. San Mateo County is actively considering closing their juvenile hall. Contra Costa, Alameda, Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties have all adopted restorative justice programs designed specifically to keep youth out of juvenile halls.
Now the County of Yolo is poised to re-envision its juvenile detention facilities. The number of youth housed in our juvenile hall during the first five months of 2019 has averaged 4.5 and has been as few as three. That is not a typo, THREE incarcerated Yolo County youth in a facility designed to serve 90. In addition the County houses, up to 24 youth under a contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). As of June 7, there were 10 of these youth in our juvenile hall. The ORR, an erratic and secretive federal program, just this week announced it would no longer pay the county for the cost of education, recreation or legal services for these youth. In short, ORR appears to be directing us to discontinue anything but food and water in a locked facility, leaving us to wonder what the next step might be. Even if this directive is reversed, it is an indication of the difficulty of working with this constantly shifting and capricious partner.
Unfortunately, providing robust services for a very small population is extremely challenging. We cannot separate youth with serious criminal history, like murder, from kids with much less serious offenses. We cannot provide a full range of education and mental health services. We must keep the ORR youth separated from the Yolo County youth and boys and girls must be separated. Much of the operational cost for the facility is fixed costs and not variable by population. The facility costs a total of $10 million to operate per year, including $3 million in Yolo County General Fund and up to $7 million in federal funds. With an average of about 5 Yolo County youth that amounts to about $600,000 per year per youth.
Obviously, the focus of any change needs to prioritize the needs of the affected youth. If this proposal moves forward, it would require an alternative setting for the small number of Yolo youth who require placement in a secure setting. One possibility is the Sacramento County juvenile hall, where youth are segregated by the severity of their crimes, have access to mental health clinicians 24 hours a day, and are able to enroll in a series of high school, community college and job training courses. Recognizing the challenge of this decision to the parents of incarcerated youth the Board is also willing to explore the provision of subsidized van, taxi or Uber services to ensure continued access during Sacramento County’s significantly more expansive visiting hours.
A change of this nature must be carefully considered, but it is essential that we not be tied to outmoded juvenile justice system approaches and exorbitant costs. We strongly believe that we should re-purpose our juvenile hall to serve other law enforcement needs including a safer and more secure booking center and expanded program space for transition aged (18-24 years old) youth currently housed in adult jail. We have examined the potential to use portions of the facility for adults and portions for juveniles, but state law and court rulings currently prohibit Yolo County from housing adults and juveniles in the same facility..
Moving to reinvent our juvenile hall would free up additional dollars the County could then re-invest in strengthening the families of incarcerated youth, in creating new programs to identify at-risk children before they become wards of the state, and that enhance and expand educational opportunities for the children of our under-served populations. This “Strengthen Yolo Families” dividend could well make our county more effective, safer and more cost-effective.
Change is hard, but we are at a critical moment when we can create a future that better serves the needs of at-risk youth and keeps them out of holding facilities. Do we have the optimism and confidence to embark on a bold new approach to juvenile justice or will we cling to an antiquated and very costly set of systems and facilities that holds the well being of our youth prisoner?
Don Saylor represents District 2 and serves as 2019 Chair of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.
Gary Sandy represents District 3 and serves as 2019 Vice-Chair of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.