Los Angeles Juvenile Defense Attorney

Posts Tagged ‘djj’

Steubenville Rape Case. Henry Rollins to the Resuce and A California Perspective

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Lots of thoughts on the Steubenville rape case, and frankly I’ve been reticent to share my thoughts as the emotions and wounds are still raw. To my mind, it has been relegated to a topic “not discussed in polite company.”  As a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I’m used to holding my tongue on issues of criminal justice.  Unless I know my companions well, nothing brings a dinner party to a grinding halt faster than my view of the world especially when talking about tough topics like pirson reform, domestic violence,  and now…Steubenville.

But as someone who cares deeply about the integrity of the juvenile justice system, it is difficult to be quiet.

Thankfully, contemporary cultural philosopher Henry Rollins came to the rescue this morning.  In an eloquent, plain-spoken blog post he framed the issues beautifully, especially the issue of punishment:

After reading posts for quite awhile, I thought first about the two young men. I wondered if the years in the facility will “help” them. What, exactly does one “learn” in one of these places? That is to say, after five years locked away, does the idea of assaulting a woman seem like the wrong thing to do, more than if you were incarcerated for one year? Would you be “more sorry” about what you did? Is that possible? Or, would you just be more sorry for yourself about where your actions landed you? At what point do you get “better”, how many years in one of these places does that take?

This is a real problem here in Los Angeles County.  The goal of the juvenile justice system is supposed to be “rehabilitation”, but unfortunately the system seems far more interested in “punishment.”  Except for a few notable exceptions, juvenile facilities in LA County are preoccupied with teaching kids how to submit to authority, not treating or rehabilitating.  Some of you reading think that’s what these kids need and I agree that a structured environment is important,  but let’s look a little deeper .

In Los Angeles County when a child is declared a ward of the delinquency court, unless a he or she is allowed to remain “home on probation”, he or she gets sent to one of three places:

    • A “probation camp” for a period of 3 to 9 months. This is a “boot camp” type facility that I like to call “county jail with training wheels.”


    • A “suitable placement facility” Depending on the child’s home life or any psychological issues, the child is placed in a group home which may or may not have a treatment component.  Kids are here for indeterminate period of time.  The court can maintain jurisdiction until the age of 21.


    • Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).  This is state prison for kids.  The only kids eligible to be sent here those who are found to have committed serious or violent offenses (strikes under California’s Three Strikes laws) . Kids can be kept there until they are 25.


So if this were Los Angeles County, what would be the appropriate disposition for the Steubenville kids?

What they did to the victim was horrible, period. Something must be done.  And let’s assume that the Ohio charges sustained against them were  the equivalent of “serious or violent offenses” aka “strikes” under California’s Three Strikes law.  Do you send these kids to DJJ until their 25? Is that the answer?

DJJ only houses 750 kids.  These are kids whom  the court believes has repeatedly engaged in  very serious criminal conduct:  Drive-by shootings, violent takeover robberies involving firearms,  kidnappings for robbery,  kids who are deeply entrenched in street gangs, and yes…also minors accused of violent sexual assaults.

But on a gut level, does that really feel like the Steubenville kids?  Do you want to warehouse these boys until their 25 with the hardest of hardcore?  These kids wouldn’t make it there for a minute.   Is this going to rehabilitate them or is this going to be a graduate school for further serious criminal conduct?

So let’s take DJJ off the table.  What if the Steubenville boys were sent to a “suitable placement” group home or a short-term probation camp. People would be up in arms and outraged that they got away with a seemingly light punishment.  Especially because in California, minors who sustain sex crime charges but are not sent to DJJ are not required to register as offenders nor would this be a qualifying offense towards California’s Sexual violent Predator law.  And while I do not believe in of sex offender registration for minors, if there were no registration requirement in this case, the outcry would be 10 times as loud.



NYT Editorial On Juvenile Justice Too Idealistic

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Sunday’s New York Times ran an editorial entitled, “Some Good News From California’s Justice System.” It praises Governor Brown’s plan to close state-run facilities operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice and transfer juveniles to county-based facilities.

The editorial does a decent job of laying out the terrible record that DJJ facilities have had. It also acknowledges that critics of the Governor’s plan are concerned that it will cause more juvenile cases to be filed needlessly in adult court.  The editorial tacitly acknowledges that this is a valid concern, but argues that this can be addressed by appropriate legislative action and monitoring.

The Legislature can prevent this by monitoring and penalizing counties that over-prosecute young people and by allowing for extended custody in local facilities of juveniles who commit more serious crimes.

Unfortunately, there are at least 125,000 reasons why the solutions proposed by the Times’ will likely fall short.  Simply put, once more juvenile cases are under the jurisdiction of the counties, there will be a strong financial incentive for counties to shift juvenile cases to the state court system.  A brief review of the recent legislative history in California shows why.

In June of 2011, the California legislature passed SB 92 which, in relevant part, said that if the state’s revenues fall short of projections for 2011, “tier 1 trigger cuts” would go into effect on January 1, 2012.  One of these trigger cuts was the shifting of the costs of DJJ commitments from the state to the counties.  Specifically, $125,000 is shifted to the county each year for every juvenile a county sends or had previously sent that is still in the custody of DJJ.  Approximately three months later, California’s collected revenues fell short of the legislative projections, and Governor Brown announced that the Tier 1 trigger cuts go into effect.

So what do the counties do when faced with the prospect of taking on the financial responsibility for handling juveniles that are currently on the books of the state?

Predictably, on December 7, the California State Association of Counties, the California District Attorneys’ Association, and the Chief Probation Officers of California wrote a letter to Governor Brown in which they explicitly indicated that shifting the financial burden will likely cause more juvenile cases to be filed in the adult system.

“. . . we write to express our gravest concerns regarding the trigger cut provision in SB 92 . . . that would require, beginning January 1, 2012, that counties pay $125,000 annually for every youthful offender committed to a department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facility, irrespective of commitment date.”

. . .

We see several potential consequences to the system that might follow.  First, by making a DJJ commitment prohibitively expensive, the state could likely see an increase in adult court proceedings for youthful offenders, reflecting the fact that a local option either may not exist or may not be viewed as inappropriate given the severity of the crime. . .“

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the counties had every incentive to avoid the $125,000 annual per-inmate cost.  The Governor’s January 2012 response strongly suggests that he didn’t think that the counties were bluffing.  He announced that collection of payments from county would be delayed.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Governor is now proposing that the DJJ be scrapped entirely and, as of January 2012, that no new juveniles would be sent to DJJ.  Kids who are currently in DJJ facilities would serve out their sentences).  The Governor’s plan also calls on counties to determine how to house their most serious juvenile offenders, and the state will provide $10 million to each county to help set up their new systems.  This is just a plan and there is no guarantee that it will ever become reality.

The fact that the New York Times editorial has its shortcomings doesn’t mean that I am in favor of the existing system.  The DJJ is far too often a disaster, and while some improvements have been made over the past few years, it is still dreadful. It’s only useful in cases where a juvenile is likely to lose at the fitness hearing.  In that circumstance, it may make sense to reach a plea agreement with the prosecutors because the DJJ is still better for juveniles than adult court, and the corresponding potential state prison sentences.

In theory, this could be an opportunity for us to reinvent the juvenile justice system in California so that it provides real community-level services and supervision that is tailored to local populations.  There are several reasons why the shift to a more county-based system may not have the results projected by the editorial’s authors.  First, counties are already dealing with an influx of adult state prisoners from the criminal justice realignment plan (non “strike” offenders now do their time in county jails).  It is anticipated that criminal justice resources at the county level are going to be stretched thin and county jails will be overcrowded.

Second, it is hard to see how the juvenile system won’t continue to be an afterthought in the criminal justice system.  The $10 million payout from the state is nice and all, but that’ll be gone quickly and then what?  DA’s will resort to direct filing in adult court rather than leaving the decision to the juvenile court, why?  Because of under realignment, the types of cases that get direct filed are generally not eligible for county jail sentences. This means that most courts would send a kid off to state prison – this keeps him off the county books in either a juvenile court or adult court scenario.

While juvenile cases in adult court may be politically unpopular in some communities (and I think unethical and immoral), nobody has ever lost an election being “tough on crime.”  Moreover, voters and would rather pay for playgrounds and after school programs rather than find a rehabilitation solution for a 16 year-old convicted armed robber.  Given that the more violent juvenile cases tend to be in the DJJ system, I would be surprised if, beyond the financial incentives, counties showed much appetite for taking on additional serious cases.  It is heartening that the New York Times editorial board has chosen to focus on the state of the Juvenile criminal justice system in California.  I do welcome the attention that such an editorial brings. But no amount of “monitoring” is going cause counties to file fewer juvenile cases in state court.  This is a problem that will require amending the underlying statutory framework.  Given the current political and budgetary environment in Sacramento, that unfortunately is a long shot.