by Sumayyah Waheed
California essentially gave up on Maria Santana’s son when he was 15 years old and was locked up in the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) youth prisons. Initially told he would be released in four years, Maria’s son has been languishing for nearly 10 years. With eight other children and recently losing her job, Maria can’t afford to drive six hours to Ventura to visit him.
It costs approximately $200,000 per year to lock up a young person in DJJ. So what has the taxpayers’ $2 million dollar investment in Maria’s son brought him, his family or his community? When his mom sees his resignation, his broken spirit and the scars on his body from rubber bullets, she knows that the state has failed him. He’s certainly not the only one. Despite costing more than $436 million annually to warehouse only 1,300 youth, DJJ fails 72 percent of the time — meaning that 72 percent of the young people are rearrested soon after release.
We’re paying $200,000 per youth per year for lockup in a violent, failed system. In comparison, a young person in a California public school merits only $7,100 per year for education. California adult prisons cost $8.2 billion, locking up 160,000 adults, but our public college system gets far less — $5.5 billion to educate more than 650,000 students.
The governor proposes teacher layoffs, health care cuts for infants and children and the end of in-home support for the elderly ill but wants to spend even more on our state prisons.
In the governor’s slash-and-burn May budget revision, prisons received nearly $190 million in additional funding. That much money could rescind 3,000 teacher layoffs or restore thousands of kids kicked off state health insurance.
Schwarzenegger also proposed giving counties an additional $300 million to build local juvenile jails, without requiring them to work with the youth warehoused in the remote DJJ prisons. Across California, counties’ existing juvenile facilities are actually underpopulated, so we don’t need more concrete cots at the county level. We need a new vision for public safety and effective rehabilitation.
As part of Books Not Bars, I work with hundreds of family members like Maria, who have experienced the cycles of incarceration via their kids’ experiences. Their stories affirm for me that additional public safety spending must be used on programs with a strong evidence base that provide education, counseling and support to the youth and their families. These programs are humane and proven to work. They more effectively and efficiently use scarce budget resources to help youth who have made mistakes turn their lives around.
Other states have learned to spend less on youth incarceration and get higher rates of success. New York, Missouri and Washington, among others, provide strong models for reform that California could imitate.
It’s past time that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature got their priorities straight and invested wisely. The families of incarcerated youth say close the decrepit and dangerous DJJ prisons and invest in public education, children’s health care, and effective rehabilitative services, so that Maria Santana’s kids, my future kids and all of our kids will have the resources they need to keep them safe and the opportunities available to succeed.
Sumayyah Waheed is the incoming Campaign Director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center. An op-ed version of this article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
(Reprinted from Ella Baker Center Blog)