SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a drastic change, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (search) administration has committed California to reforming the way it treats youthful offenders, promising to replace more punitive measures with therapy and positive reinforcement.
The agreement was announced Monday to settle a lawsuit. Only last year, the juvenile system was criticized by national experts as draconian. Among the methods they cited was the use of cages and drugs to subdue mentally ill or substance addicted youths.
Under a timetable set for the agreement, reforms will be implemented gradually. The body that oversees the system, the California Youth Authority (search), set a fall deadline for having a plan to shift the approach to one similar to those being used successfully by other states.
By Nov. 30, the authority will lay out a plan to provide rehabilitation, keep youths as close to their homes as possible, include their families when possible, minimize when youths are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, and "emphasize positive reinforcement rather than punitive disciplinary measures."
Authority director Walter Allen called it "a historic agreement."
The authority agreed to end the routine lock-downs at the N.A. Chaderjian and Heman G. Stark youth correctional facilities by March 1, letting wards leave their cells for educational and vocational classes, recreation, treatment and meals. As part of that move, violent and nonviolent youths will be separated.
The end of the lock-downs are expected there by June, and at other facilities by May 2.
By April, the authority will end the use of temporary detention as punishment. By June, it authority will switch to an incentive plan that emphasizes positive reinforcement.
"It doesn't give particulars, but that's because they're complicated," said Sara Norman, an attorney for the Prison Law Office (search), one of groups that sued. "We're definitely excited that they're going to change the nature of the agency."
Specific plans are due this spring for medical care, education, mental health, disabilities, sex offenders, and safety and welfare.
A major step will be training all employees to provide rehabilitation and treatment, instead of acting as prison guards, Norman said.
"It's pretty skeletal," acknowledged Belinda Griswold, spokeswoman for the Books Not Bars (search) advocacy group. But the deadline requirements are "pointing us in the direction of a completely different way of operating the system."