After decades of tough policies, America's most-populous state is poised to reverse direction in its approach to the incarceration of youth - from punishment to rehabilitation.
In the 1930s and 1940s, in particular, California was considered the country's premier model for returning young offenders to communities only after addressing the shortcomings that may have led to their prison terms - social and education skills, family patterns, mental health, gang participation, and vocational needs.
But dwindling funds and years of embracing a get-tough ethos moved the state into what critics called the "caged" model: one more intent on control, rebuke, and reprimand than on corrective measures.
Now with 70 percent of released offenders rearrested within three years - highlighting both the costs to society and declining life options for the imprisoned - the state is embracing a new approach. Goaded in part by a taxpayer lawsuit forcing them to address deficiencies, state leaders are releasing blueprints that they hope will stop the revolving door of juvenile offenders turning into adult criminals.
"We are not talking about hugging a thug ... we will still hold youth accountable for what they do, but we need to make an impact on the majority of offenders so they don't go out there and reoffend," says Walt Allen, director of the California Youth Authority (CYA), which runs the state's eight youth prison facilities, now housing about 3,288 people.
Sacramento's move mirrors a trend underway in several states. In Missouri, for instance, youth offenders are housed in small facilities and given intensive treatment, training, and education. Maryland and other states are looking to revamp their programs, too.
But the emerging California model would mark a move into rehabilitation on a scale not yet tried, state officials say. The hope is the system will help turn around one of the nation's most troubled juvenile-justice systems. Though funding for the initiative remains uncertain, the governor and state legislature are at least in agreement on philosophy: group therapy, self-discipline, and life-preparation programs are the antidote for recidivism - and cheaper in the long run.
As laid out in plans submitted in court documents last week, the CYA wants to move to smaller living units, increased staff-to-youth ratios, systematic assessment of juveniles, and individualized treatment. In addition, authorities want to change an environment that over the years has spilled into dangerous - and regular - fighting between wards and staff.
Paramount in that culture shift will be producing living conditions and rules that promote more appropriate behavior, reward the achievement of goals, and spell out sanctions for misbehaving. Such changes go beyond simple redefinitions of housing, staff, and the actual content of programs: They will try to shape the way prisoners interact - which might carry over to nonprison life.
"The lawsuit and our subsequent investigation of what is working well in other states made us realize that what we need is a much more large-scale overhaul," says Elizabeth Siggins, assistant secretary for juvenile justice policy.
In addition to Missouri, state officials visited programs in Colorado, Washington, Texas, and Florida before fashioning their own model. Analysts say the state's racial and ethnic makeup will force designers to be more creative in producing programs that work.
"The whole country is really beginning to move toward the kinds of designs that California is now embracing," says Caren Leaf, director at Lookout Mountain Youth Service Center in Golden, Colo. "States are reframing their objectives with the premise that all these young criminal offenders end up back in local communities.... So the overwhelming need is for them to return different than when they left."
California and other states face several hurdles in moving toward a more rehabilitative model. One is funding. California has been struggling to overcome one of its biggest deficits in history. Lawmakers are being pulled in several directions as they look to cut programs from education to welfare.
"The price tag of such reforms is a potential stalling point," says David Steinhart, a California lawyer and juvenile-justice specialist. "If you try to reconfigure and rebuild existing facilities you have to go to the voters and that is a hurdle for the administration."
In the fight over costs, officials are telling lawmakers and citizens alike that programs that try to prevent recidivism are cheaper in the long run. "The concern we have is how much are these offenders going to cost if they come back to the prisons as adults when the cost is even greater," says Leaf.
Another hurdle is the prison culture itself. Many corrections officers worry about going too soft on a prison population that includes some of the state's toughest juvenile offenders. "There is enormous built-in resistance by most of the officers who have been trained, and spent their whole professional life in getting tough on crime," says Carl Mazza, a prison expert at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York. "Many will see that they are being asked to become soft on crime, and many politicians pushing this will be accused of it as well."
Others believe the punishment vs. rehabilitation debate ignores a larger struggle over social values. They say it leaves out discussion of reforming national attitudes about incarceration altogether - and the uneven percentages of blacks, Hispanics, and whites in prison. "Until you have the larger discussion on jobs, civil rights, it's hollow to talk about rehabilitation," says Barry Sanders, a historian at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.