Young inmates at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall exercise outside at the Felton facility. Photos by Toby Silverman
The inside of what a tour guide called an ‘average’ cell at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall

For the second time in two years, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing the closure of all state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities, beginning this year, in light of California’s budget deficit.

With an annual cost of about $200,000-$250,000 per child, “California can no longer afford to operate dual state and county juvenile justice systems,” said Daniel Macallair, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice executive director. This means the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall in Felton could soon receive more inhabitants.

The current California system has been running since 1859, when the first juvenile correctional facility opened. It still stands “as a 19th-century relic,” Macallair said.

In addition to county facilities, California has five state detention centers across the state, each making up a part of the total 1,118 DJJ population. To adequately make the transition from state to county facilities, Brown has proposed giving each county $10 million.

Until 2007, when the Major Juvenile Justice Reform Bill was signed, the population was nearly twice as high. The bill filtered out non-serious offenders and kept less-serious juveniles at the county level. Since then, counties have sent only homicide or assault cases to DJJ, and have equipped themselves to meet the needs of the remaining offenders. With the possibility of the state system’s closure, the counties may also have to meet the needs of those more serious and long-term offenders.

“[The Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall] was not meant to hold people for long periods of time,” said Scott MacDonald, Santa Cruz County chief probation officer.

Regardless, county probation officials are confident DJJ closure will not affect the overall operation of their facility.

“[DJJ Closure] will affect everyone,” said Robert Igarta, associate director of Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. As three Santa Cruz juveniles are currently in DJJ, the county would have to find a way to accommodate those individuals.

However, “the impact won’t be as severe as it will in some counties where there are a lot of kids in DJJ,” Igarta said.

Dealing with the cuts would not be too much of an issue, he said, as only three juveniles would have to be removed from DJJ, and one is moving to an adult prison.

“I think we could do a better job if the kids came back home,” MacDonald said.

Santa Cruz has set a precedent for creating innovative methods of accomodating juvenile offenders. In 1992 it was one of the first counties in the nation to establish the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which cut juvenile hall population by about 50 percent. The initiative took individuals who were not serious offenders out of juvenile hall, and placed them in community-based programs designed to help integrate them into society. Today, the initiative has spread nationwide and is even being used in adult prisons.

“Our philosophy is a lot different from other counties,” Igarta said. “Ours is very restorative and compassionate.”

Igarta said by fostering a warm environment and encouraging staff interaction the needs of the children will be identified and more easily attended to. That means participating in recreational games, sitting down with the kids for dinner, and even playing a game or two of chess.

“The showers are warm,” said one of the juveniles of the Santa Cruz system. “It’s one of the best programs.”

Classes are held at the facilities Monday through Friday.

“If you provide one kid with hope, it’s contagious,” teacher Bonnie Dankert said.

Officials are optimistic about the DJJ closure, saying it will just be a minor setback to deal with. For now, they plan to run things as they always have. Although the notion of housing juveniles long-term is not one Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall is familiar with, MacDonald said he doesn’t foresee the closure as one they can’t tackle.

“I’m going to make it work, one way or another,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think we could do a better job than the state.”