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California Legislature Introduces Its Plan for the Closure of State’s Youth Prisons

youth prison system

Leaders of the California Assembly and Senate presented detailed plans this week on how the state should shut down its aging and outmoded youth prison system – a revised approach to the youngest and most serious offenders that keeps them out of adult prisons and provides increased oversight of county-run detention facilities and programs.

Unveiled at a public hearing in Sacramento on Thursday, the plan follows a surprise move by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in May. As part of his revised budget proposal, Newsom announced his intention to shut down the last three youth prisons run by the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, turning supervision responsibilities to California’s 58 counties.

The proposal increases costs for counties that decide to prosecute youth as adults, and if tried and sent to prison, the youth's county of residence is responsible for the cost.

The legislators’ vision of a reformed juvenile justice system would create an Office of Youth Justice to provide improved state oversight of county-run programs, along with a new position of ombudsperson. The office would provide guidance on best practices for a more public health-oriented approach to juvenile justice, monitoring regulations and licensing, and overseeing a new grant program with incentives for counties that create “trauma-informed” rehabilitative programs for youth convicted of serious offenses.

Under the proposal, the new Office of Youth Justice would be empowered to revoke contracts for juvenile detention facilities from probation departments that did not meet standards.

“We have to focus on what we should be doing to properly serve these young people so that this is their one and only stint in the criminal justice system and it doesn’t turn into a permanent path,” said Phil Ting, chair of the Assembly budget committee.

The Legislature’s plan proposes shutting down the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice by the end of 2023, but allows counties to continue to send their highest-level offenders to state prisons until June 2023.That gives counties a year and a half to develop alternatives to the youth prison system.

The proposal would also change California law to allow young adults to stay in juvenile halls and other county juvenile detention facilities such as camps and ranches until age 25. Regardless of age, those in custody would be afforded an equal opportunity to receive evidence-based rehabilitative services and developmentally appropriate models, rather than correctional approaches that are predominant in some counties.

“With 58 diverse counties, oversight is critical, so that we’re not creating justice by geography,” said Shirley Weber, chair of the Assembly’s subcommittee on public safety budget matters.

Daniel Mendoza, an advocate with Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, said he spent years in a county juvenile hall after he committed a first-degree gang-related murder at age 14. With an absence of quality programs and services inside the San Joaquin County juvenile hall, Mendoza said he did not fully begin his healing until he left the detention facility.

“All young people should have the access to higher education, to training, to adequate mental health and healing services and resources so that when young people reenter back into society they can be the leaders they’re meant to be and can give back to society,” Mendoza said at Thursday’s hearing.

El Dorado County Chief Probation Officer Brian Richart, who also serves as the head of the Chief Probation Officers of California, said that although county probation departments have presided over a 60% drop in the number of youth in local detention facilities since 2007, ongoing financial support from the state is needed to preserve the gains of the past decade.

“The building of bureaucracies has never helped heal a child’s trauma,” Richart said.

Youth advocates argue the state has been hamstrung by its differing access to programs and standards up and down the state. Criminal justice expert at UC Berkeley Barry Krisberg, who worked on reforms of California’s youth prisons over several decades, said an office devoted to youth justice is long overdue, though it would need to “have some real teeth” to be effective.

Once known as the California Youth Authority, the juvenile prison system was notorious for the brutal treatment of young people, including 23-hour cell confinement and the use of cages for school and recreation.

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“There ought to be a uniform system where similar behavior is treated in similar ways,” Krisberg said in an interview with The Imprint.

The creation of the Youth Justice Office would wrest some responsibilities away from the Board of State and Community Corrections, which is now tasked with oversight of all detention facilities in the state. Advocates have long complained, however, that the board is too focused on adult correctional approaches, and has little expertise in implementing developmentally appropriate practices for youth offenders. Critics also say the oversight body lacks the legal authority to conduct meaningful enforcement.

If the legislative proposal is approved by the governor, the Office of Youth Justice would have the ability to terminate contracts with probation departments who now oversee juvenile offenders in detention facilities, switching supervision to other government social service agencies or health departments.

“It’s important that we have that because otherwise, we continue to build mini-county jails, paint them light blue and call them youth appropriate,” said Frankie Guzman, director of the Youth Justice Initiative at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.

With a budget of about $232 million, the Division of Juvenile Justice now holds about 775 youth ages 15 to 25 who were convicted of serious or violent offenses as juveniles. About 93% of those detained are youth of color, according to a legislative analysis.

As part of his May budget revision, Newsom shocked many advocates and legislators by announcing he would close Division of Juvenile Justice prisons as soon as next year, upending his previous plan to move the agency from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. Newsom said his decision to dissolve the state youth prison system – leaving all youth offenders, regardless of severity of crime served by their home counties – was in part an attempt to save the budget-strapped state tens of millions of dollars annually over the next three years. Another driving factor, he said, was moving youth close to home, where they stand a better chance at resuming peaceful and prosperous livesthan they would in isolated and rundown youth prisons.

But while many hailed the proposed closure, some advocates were concerned that without the youth prison system – however flawed – juvenile delinquency court judges would lack an alternative. That could lead to incarceration in places far worse: adult prisons.

California has made tremendous strides reducing the number of minors tried as adults, according to Guzman of the National Center for Youth Law. In 2008, 12,000 young people were prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. But by 2019, that number was just 64. Still, Black and brown youth are still far more likely than white teens to be sentenced to adult prison terms that, unlike the juvenile system, by law are not required to include rehabilitation.

“Black, brown and indigenous young people bear the brunt of our state’s most harmful justice system decisions,” Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate for Human Rights Watch, said at Thursday’s Assembly hearing.

To counter fears that judges might not want to send youth who have committed serious crimes like murder and arson to county juvenile halls, camps and ranches, the Legislature’s proposal includes funding that would allow three counties to remodel existing detention facilities to make them more secure. Other grant funding would go toward expanded programming and services for youth who have committed serious offenses. In 2021, counties would also receive $150,000 for each youth brought back from Division of Juvenile Justice facilities.

The proposal includes increased costs for counties that decide to prosecute youth as adults. If a juvenile was tried in adult court and subsequently sent to a state prison, under this plan the youth’s county of residence would be on the hook for the marginal cost of incarceration for each year of the sentence – a sum that could range from $12,600 to $36,559, depending on the facility.

The Legislature’s plan will face more scrutiny on Aug. 15, when the Senate Budget Committee tackles the plan.

[dc]“I[/dc]t’s time to close DJJ,” said Calvin of Human Rights Watch, “but we urge policymakers to do it the right way.”

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Jeremy Loudenback
The Imprint

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.