The State of Juvenile Justice Realignment in California

In September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 823, which seeks to reform the controversial state juvenile justice system by transferring the administration of juvenile justice programs to counties.

It has been eight months since then. This article examines the state of California’s Juvenile Justice Realignment, which goes into effect in July 2021. 

Since Newson made it law, SB 823 has received mixed reactions from public officers within the criminal justice system, past juvenile offenders, and advocacy groups. Some touted the reform as critically necessary to bolster public confidence in an unfair juvenile justice system. Others allege the reform was a hasty move by the Newsom administration to cut costs as the closure of business hit the golden state’s budget during the pandemic.

However, the observable consensus is that counties are unprepared to take on the administration of juvenile justice; counties are disproportionate in their capabilities to sustain the program, and the fiscal impact of reform is immeasurable at this time.

Brian Richart, President of the Chief Probation Officers of California, said the counties are unprepared but willing to work with local and state partners in the criminal justice system. Richart, who is also the Chief Probation Officer in El Dorado County, pointed out the transition put rural counties under a lot of pressure.

Given this, counties will need resources to run local programs that match the services the soon-to-be-defunct Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) provided. Besides these financial and structural constraints, Richart noted that probation officers have the expertise needed to run autonomous local juvenile justice programs successfully.

In the meantime, rural counties may have to run partnership programs to solve the financial and structural problems.  

Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, emphasized the need for partnership, especially between counties that cannot provide every necessary service.

Still, several officials worry about discrepancies due to justice by geographical area. The first round of realignment in the California juvenile justice system began in 2000. Since then, counties have run juvenile justice services for nearly 90% of eligible offenders.

By considering this fact, the bill proposed that counties receive a Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant. This grant includes $225,000 per youth and will provide county-based custody, care, and supervision of youth redirected from the DJJ.

Despite provisions for this grant, justice inequality remains persistent because of a formula for broader state funding.  

The formula, which many have criticized as vague, will allocate 30 percent of state funds to counties, based on the number of juvenile offenders a county previously referred to the state program. Allocating 50 percent of funds would be based on how many higher-level juveniles a county already held locally.

Josh Gauger of the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) says the funding formula does not favor counties that must now serve juveniles with needs that used to be available at the state level.

In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger transferred the responsibility of running youth justice programs for juveniles with less severe offenses to counties. With the transition and new funding formula, analysts project that county probation departments may initially struggle with the responsibility of serving high-risk youth.

Although counties will now spearhead juvenile justice in California, one can only wonder how this change will turn out, especially regarding the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. If history can offer pointers, it is that remodeling a failing system is possible – albeit challenging.