Schwarzenegger: The Action Governor, Missing In Action

What's he done since taking office? On California's notorious juvenile justice system, next to nothing.

| Wed Jun. 28, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

If you live outside of California and you’re wondering what Arnold Schwarzenegger has done since he took office, you might not want to ask him about “juvenile justice.”

If you do live in California, and you’re curious what he’s done about California’s notorious youth prisons, don’t expect many details.

Twenty-two months after Schwarzenegger declared himself “The Action Governor” on this issue, five kids under the state's care are dead, dozens have attempted suicide, and California taxpayers are dumping millions a day into one of the nation’s worst juvenile justice systems. The Action Governor is missing in action.

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That's why dozens of families are camped out in Sacramento this week, at a 3-Day vigil organized by Books Not Bars, an advocacy group working for alternatives to youth incarceration in California. The families are demanding a meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger this week - and demanding a new way forward for California.

A little background: With nine warehouse-style prisons, the Department of Juvenile Justice houses over 3,000 youth. About a fifth are in for "violent" crimes (classified as Type One and Two crimes in the California code.) The rest are in for misdemeanors ranging from shoplifting and petty theft to drug possession. All of them need help, and the DJJ has a constitutional state mandate to "rehabilitate" these wards.

Sadly the system is a hotbed of abuse and endemic violence, from the guards treatment of wards to the very discipline methods the State employs. In 2004 cameras caught a vicious beating on tape: guards pummeling teens. And for three years debate has raged about the DJJ's choice of disciplinary methods: youth with any infraction are put in 23-hour lockdown, and many wards considered discipline risks are taught in 6 x 6 cages along side other inmates during class time. Many youth are denied visitation with their parents, who drive an average of 4 hours to see their kids every week.

The worst part: It doesn’t work! With a 75 percent recidivism rate and a price tag of $82,000 per kid per year, California's is one of the nation’s most expensive, least effective juvenile justice systems. Read that again: most expensive; least effective. That’s a potent combo in a State where budget crises forced the last Governor out of office.

Back to Sacramento: Renee Nunez is ready to speak out at a rally on the Capitol steps. Renee’s brother Joseph killed himself in N.A. Chaderjian (CHAD) prison last August, a death the Inspector General called “completely preventable.”

Renee is in Sacramento with Connie Brewer, who’s son Dyron entered CHAD in 2004 in good health. A month later? Dead – a cardiac arrest at 24.

Renee, Connie, and dozens more are angry. They’re frustrated. And they want action from the Governor.

“The worst thing about it,” said Jakada Imani, who runs the Books Not Bars campaign, “Is he won’t even meet with them. Their kids died, in the care of the State, and nothing. Not a call. Not a card. Not a letter. For 22 months this Governor has planned to plan, but kids are dying in DJJ.”

Still, Governor Schwarzenegger has had opportunities. In November, a lawsuit led to an expert report with recommendations to overhaul the system. Action? None.

In February, the heads of DJJ and the State Corrections Department resigned, both citing a lack of political will for reform. Action? None.

Today, four bills--a juvenile justice reform package--are pending in the legislature. Together they would drop the population and implement key reforms. One more chance for the Governor to be a hero.

The bills are important, but the parents want something simpler: a meeting. Twenty-two months ago the Governor promised “this will not just be dialogue. This will be action”

For Renee and Connie, just the dialogue would be a step.

As the nation starts tuning in to see what Schwarzenegger has done, we’re waiting still for action. The Governor is nowhere to be found on a sad, urgent, and costly issue.

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