View Full Version : Shunning the CYA

07-18-2004, 11:48 AM
Shunning the CYA
Counties troubled by facilities' conditions
By Andy Furillo -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, July 18, 2004
Sacramento County public defenders have joined a growing number of juvenile justice officials who are balking at sending their worst young offenders to the California Youth Authority.
Since January, attorneys in the juvenile branch of the Sacramento Public Defender's Office have opposed every single commitment to California's youth prison system - apparently with some success.

As of June 30, 14 offenders had been sentenced this year from Sacramento to CYA institutions. If the six-month trend continues for the year, Sacramento would send CYA about 40 percent fewer youths than it did in 2003, when judges remanded 48 young criminals into the agency's custody.

CYA's 16 institutions have come under heavy criticism over the past year because of inmate suicides and videotaped beatings of the wards by staff. Reports commissioned by the state attorney general brand some youth prisons as violent and say they have failed to achieve their statutory responsibilities of protecting the public and rehabilitating young criminals.
In response, juvenile justice officials from virtually every county in the state have expressed concerns about the CYA, and representatives from 20 counties have toured California's youth prisons to see what kind of treatment their wards are receiving. One county, San Mateo, declared a moratorium earlier this year on sending youths to CYA, until it conducted a first-hand examination of all of its wards and ultimately determined they were not being mistreated.

Sacramento's juvenile public defenders, however, still are not convinced CYA is a right fit for wards they think could be better treated in less-restrictive settings, such as boys camps or community-based group homes.

"I don't think they're providing the services the kids are required to get to return them to the community rehabilitated, the way the community wants to get them back," said Arthur Bowie, the county's supervising assistant public defender in charge of the juvenile division. "If I'm being told CYA isn't able to provide those services, what's the point?"

San Francisco's juvenile public defenders also have been successful in fighting CYA placements. And Yolo and El Dorado County public defenders say they, too, are challenging CYA sentences.

Public defenders from all over the state, in fact, met recently to discuss the Youth Authority and question its performance. The meeting included representatives of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office, police organizations, the state Judicial Council and the California District Attorneys Association, according to Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

"There's a heightened interest, for the first time that I can remember, among public defenders and probation officers and juvenile courts in actually finding out what is happening in the Youth Authority," Burrell said.

As of June 30, there were 3,984 inmates housed at CYA. That is fewer than half the 9,927 jailed at the close of 1995, a trend that, in part, reflects an increase in use of the adult system to try serious juvenile offenders and a general decrease in juvenile crime. This year's figure includes 149 wards from Sacramento County.

Scrutiny of the $450 million-a-year agency has left the Schwarzenegger administration open to reform, according to advocates for change. Rather than defend themselves from the criticisms contained in the reports commissioned by the Department of Justice, state corrections officials have wholeheartedly accepted them. Most symbolically, the agency has gotten rid of the "special program area" cages - wire enclosures about the size of telephone booths - in which the most troublesome CYA wards were placed while participating in education programs.

"(We) have acknowledged that the department has problems," said Kip Lowe, the CYA's assistant deputy director in charge of institutions and camps. "There is an understanding why the (Sacramento) Public Defender's Office would have some concerns about sending their offenders to the Youth Authority."

Big changes, meanwhile, are about to be forced on CYA. Attorneys from the Prison Law Office and the state are negotiating to settle a lawsuit in Alameda County that targets CYA conditions. Plaintiffs' attorney Donald Specter did not say what the agreement might entail, but his lawsuit accuses the CYA of using excessive force, punishing wards unnecessarily in segregation units, and providing inadequate medical and psychiatric care and a deficient educational program.

It was the Prison Law Office lawsuit that prompted the attorney general to commission the reports critical of Youth Authority conditions.

One of the reports, issued in December by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, concluded "it is abundantly clear" that the CYA "is a very dangerous place, and that neither staff nor wards feel safe in its facilities."

In the six CYA facilities he studied, report author Barry Krisberg said wards attacked one another an average of 10 times a day. Reports of excessive force by staff "were found to be well-grounded," Krisberg wrote.

Lockup units at the CYA's toughest institutions, where wards are placed in cells 23 hours a day for bad behavior, "were in disrepair, with walls filled with graffiti, poor lighting and inadequate temperature controls."

In an interview, Krisberg said his report and others "document almost a complete breakdown of the California Youth Authority."

Within a month of publication of the Krisberg report came the crushing corroboration of problems in the CYA system, when two youths hanged themselves in the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, and six staff members were caught on videotape beating a ward at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton.

Krisberg credits the Schwarzenegger administration with trying to fix the problems, but said the efforts will fall short unless it comes up with the money for a total overhaul. "Without adequate resources, I don't see a remedy to these problems," Krisberg said.

At the Chaderjian facility, about 600 of the state's most recalcitrant wards are housed in the equivalent of a maximum-security prison. In the facility's Special Management Program (SMP), about 100 youths at any given time are locked down 23 hours a day for violent behavior or other serious violations of the rules.

Last Tuesday, while CYA officials directed a tour through the unit, young inmates banged on their cell doors and screamed at visitors.

Outside, Montray Skinner, 19, stood in a chain-link exercise enclosure about the size of a handball court. He had refused to leave after his hour of exercise time was up and swore at correctional counselors who tried to coax him out.

In an interview, Skinner, a convicted armed robber from Fresno, complained about the food, the lack of drug treatment and what he characterized as an abusive staff member stripping him down and using chemical agents when removing him from his general population cell to the Special Management Program.

He said he was placed in the lockup for refusing to remove a towel he had put over his cell window to obstruct the view. Skinner said he'd like to learn a construction trade while in CYA. He said he also would like to rejoin his street gang and sell crack cocaine when he gets out in January.

"Something goes bad, I'm going to go back to what I know - selling drugs," Skinner said.

If places like the Chaderjian lockups have been the subject of scathing reports, programs such as those offered in the institution's American Hall exemplify a more positive side, CYA officials say. The unit houses offenders who have expressed a willingness to drop out of gangs and more actively engage in the institution's work and school programs.

Once they get in the hall, correctional counselor Karri Burks said, she applies something of a reverse osmosis process in her dealings with Chaderjian wards. She said she tries to filter them down to less restrictive camps and other CYA institutions, with a "less hard-core" clientele, that might give the wards a better chance of success.

"A lot of us believe in this program," Burks said. "I don't know what they think we're doing here, but we're dedicated and we work hard here."

In Sacramento, if a juvenile hasn't been certified for adult adjudication, the CYA represents the most severe level of incarceration. It is usually restricted to repeat offenders who have failed at less restrictive alternatives such as the Boys Ranch, at-home placement, community drug or mental health treatment, or electronic monitoring.

By law, juvenile courts are required to place youths in the least restrictive environment "consistent with public safety."

Despite the objections filed by the public defender, the county Probation Department's chief deputy in charge of juvenile court services, Don McFadden, said that in his office, "We continue to view the CYA as a viable option as far as treatment."

Rick Lewkowitz, in charge of the district attorney's juvenile division, said his office continues to seek CYA sentences "on a case-by-case basis."

"If it's still the best program available to protect the community and serve the treatment needs of the kid, we're going to argue for it," Lewkowitz said.

Bowie, the deputy public defender, said the CYA is always the better choice for juveniles who would otherwise face adult prison time. But he said in almost every other instance, he feels the alternative sanctions are better for the kid and the community, long-term, than a trip to CYA.

"You want kids to come back better," Bowie said. "And I don't think that's happening with kids who go to CYA."

About the Writer

The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or

Youths sit in the dayroom of their cellblock as a head count is taken upon their return from classes at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton.

Sacramento Bee/Jay Mather

Youths return to their cellblock after attending classes at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, prison-like home to 600 of the state's toughest wards. But N.A. Chaderjian's American Hall program offers a path to less-restrictive institutions for those youths who ex-press a willingness to forsake gangs and take an active part in work and school programs.

Sacramento Bee/Jay Mather