Moving Juveniles Will Save Millions, Experts Say

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown says his proposal to eliminate California’s youth prisons and house juvenile offenders in county jails would save the state almost half a billion dollars next fiscal year and $1.4 billion annually while relieving prison overcrowding.

Eliminating the entire Division of Juvenile Justice would save the state $250 million a year, according to brown. Many counties have empty beds in their jails and juvenile halls.

According to statistics compiled by criminologist James Austin, who found that the state’s overcrowded prisons were violating prisoners’ constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment, there are currently 12,500 jail beds available in California’s 10 largest counties.

Extra beds are also available in California’s juvenile halls due to an uptick in their construction during the late 1990s. Some experts say that together, they could house the entire state juvenile offender population and still have 200 to 1,000 empty beds left over.

But Nick Warner, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said 34 counties are at capacity, and that unless extra beds are added to those jails, some inmates would need to be released early to make room for juveniles.

The jail in Mateo County, for instance, is currently 130 percent to 140 percent over capacity, and the county plans to open a new $140 million jail by the end of 2013 to ease overcrowding. Construction on the facility has not yet begun.

While California’s juvenile offender population has fallen due to record-low youth crime rates and a 2007 law that shifted all but the most serious offenders to county jails, the state’s adult prison population has grown.

If legislators approve Brown’s proposal, 37,000 adult, low-level offenders would also be housed in county jails, slashing half of the prison system’s operating costs, according to some experts.