As California Closes Juvenile Lockups, Counties Fail to Support Intended Rehabilitation
As California prepares for a major shake-up of its juvenile justice system and its rehabilitation models, a new report suggests that counties are increasingly relying on jail-like juvenile halls to hold youth for long periods of time on indeterminate sentences.
Using public records requests, researchers from the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and Youth Law Center of San Francisco found that some counties are skirting state laws that require them to send youth to lower-security juvenile camps or ranches after they have been sentenced in court.
Instead, many are held in little-scrutinized “commitment programs” in juvenile halls that require youth to meet sometimes-arbitrary conditions linked to behavior before they can be released. In some counties, the use of these programs has replaced less-secure options, and advocates are concerned that these highly restrictive settings do not provide a suitable environment to support rehabilitation.
The state is prepared to send millions to create healthy rehabilitation models of juvenile justice, but locally administered programs must be genuinely and diligently overseen.
“These are not places that are conducive to developmentally appropriate services in any way, shape or form,” said Sue Burrell, policy and training director with the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center.
Conditions of confinement are often “locked rooms with tiny windows, institutional furniture (often bolted to the floor), barbed wire fences, and limited program and visiting areas,” the report states. In some facilities youth of all educational levels attend school in a single room in the facility.
Young people in local lockups often have to earn points or meet other metrics to win their freedom, or even privileges. In Kings County, for example, young people can earn the right to a 10-minute phone call or personal hygiene products. And in Contra Costa County, if youth garner enough points through a behavior management system, they are able to receive a personal pair of colored socks or a washcloth.
“They’re often just variations of boot camp programs in a jail,” Burrell said.
The state will be increasingly looking to county-run juvenile justice systems to work with their most serious youth offenders, following an agreement reached in September between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to shutterthe state’s youth prison system in 2021.
At that time, juvenile offenders charged with the most serious and violent crimes will be held at the county level, paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars in new state funding aimed at creating a more effective and humane system for young people whose brains are still developing.
Those held at the state’s cavernous Division of Juvenile Justice prisons go on to reoffend at high rates upon release, and their poor outcomes come at a tremendous cost to both the public and the young people, who are separated from family and community and can spend years in violent warehouse-like facilities. Now, advocates fear sending these young people into county-run juvenile halls could replicate the problems at the local level.
“Moving youth into these juvenile hall programs is the easy thing to do,” said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center and one of the authors of the report. “But it’s just perpetuating the same old problems: wasting dollars on interventions that don’t work. The real danger is that we’re setting ourselves up for 58 versions of the things that led the governor to close the Division of Juvenile Justice.”
In most cases, youth are only held in restrictive juvenile halls for short periods of time, while their court cases are being decided. After a juvenile delinquency court judge rules, young people are usually sentenced to a period of time in a camp or ranch, where they have more freedom of movement and access to outdoor activities.
But as juvenile crime and arrests have steadily declined across the state in recent decades, that has meant the closure of many older, lower-security camps. Now, authors of the recently released report say, it is far more likely for youth to be kept in higher-security facilities.
Alameda County recently scuttled plans to rebuild Camp Sweeney, an aging, medium-security juvenile detention camp in San Leandro, after its population dipped to 13 during the pandemic.
In San Luis Obispo County, the probation department created the Coastal Valley Academy commitment program inside its juvenile hall for young people who researchers say would otherwise be placed in group homes, according to the report.
Youth who are sentenced to commitment programs often end up serving in facilities that are either juvenile halls or are “camps” in name only. The report notes 16 “camps” that operate within juvenile halls – including facilities in Ventura, Solano and Contra Costa counties. Another seven counties operate facilities that are directly adjacent to the juvenile hall.
When judges send youth to programs with an indeterminate sentence, probation departments are tasked with determining when a young person is ready to be released, a decision that advocates say rests not on evidence but on the discretion of probation staff.
Unfortunately, there is little information about how many youth are serving in these types of programs across the state, who they are and why they have been placed there. The state’s Board of Community and State Corrections — which is tasked with overseeing county-run juvenile camps and halls — does not currently collect such information.
But according to public records obtained from a sample of California counties, the legal researchers found that youth are overwhelmingly sentenced to serve time for violating the terms of their probation, not for committing a new offense. For example, in 2018 and 2019, 132 of 150 commitments in Monterey County were for probation violations.
And that has meant many youth staying for long stays in facilities not meant to house young people for more than a few days. In Tulare County, 16 youth served commitments longer than 365 days in 2018 and 2019, the report found.
Desautels said that as the state is prepared to send millions of dollars to the counties to create a new model of juvenile justice focused on healthy rehabilitation, locally administered programs must be genuinely and diligently overseen. "The counties have sort of gotten stuck into this rut of these existing facilities and probation departments,” she said, “with no accountability over how they’re using them or spending the money.”
This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.