We love to talk about how we're overtaxed and overgoverned, and how self-reliance is an underappreciated characteristic in both individuals and societies. Evidence for the merits of those arguments is abundant enough.
Not when it comes to juvenile justice, however. In fact, as a recent snapshot reveals, Kern County is on the state government dole like few others.
Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed realignment of the state's juvenile prison system, which attempted to reduce state spending by shifting the burden of incarcerating and treating violent youthful offenders to county-run programs, has shed light on harsh disparities among counties. Some counties fund their juvenile justice systems almost completely; others rely tremendously on the state.
And Kern County leans on state government to a greater extent than any other, at least based on a one-month sampling by the California-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
Many of California's 58 counties handle high-level offenders primarily in their own locally managed programs, but others transfer large numbers to state facilities run by the Division of Juvenile Justice -- an alternative that often costs taxpayers more than twice the dollars it requires to treat them in the county.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice studied juvenile confinement in December 2010. Its findings: Five counties, including Kern, were responsible for 56.1 percent of the statewide cost for state-run detention centers. Kern spent $54,313 to keep 98 youths at DJJ those 31 days, with California taxpayers picking up the remaining tab of more than $1.8 million. All told, the five most state-dependent counties (Kern, Kings, Monterey, Fresno, and Merced) accounted for 8.8 percent of juvenile felony arrests and 22.9 percent of all state Division of Juvenile Facilities wards. The five most self-reliant counties (Marin, Placer, San Francisco, Ventura and Santa Clara) had slightly more felony arrests than the five most dependent (9.8 percent) but only 3.5 percent of all DJF wards.
Kern, the most state-dependent county in California for juvenile justice services during the period studied, sent 19 Category 5 offenders and one Category 6 offender -- the least serious classifications -- to DJF confinement, according to CJCJ researchers. And Kern paid a premium for doing so: The state charges counties higher fees to hold these lesser-offense youths in an effort to reward counties for managing their own most manageable detainees. But as Kern County's numbers demonstrate, the disincentive didn't necessarily produce the desired results.
Several factors determine a county's ability to incarcerate and treat its own young offenders, tax-revenue wealth being by far the most significant. But it bears noting, as many taxpayers across Kern County continue to demand an all-cuts solution to California's in-arrears budget, we're not paying our own way in this area as it is. Or in several other areas, for that matter.
Some may be content to let state government and other, more independent counties pick up the tab for us. But that hardly fits the spirit of a county where self-reliance seems to be regarded as the ultimate virtue.