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Edgar Ibarra surrounded by his mother (left) and sister (right) in 2009 or 2010 when he was incarcerated at Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione (now closed). Photo courtesy of Edgar Ibarra.

California Legislature and Governor Reach Agreement to Close Youth Prison System

Over the objections of county governments and local probation agencies, the California Legislature has reached an agreement with Gov. Gavin Newsom to phase out the state’s youth prison system, while raising the age to 25 for some youth to remain in the juvenile justice system.

Under the terms of a deal reached on Friday night, beginning on July 1 of next year, the state will stop accepting the majority of youth offenders who are found to have committed the most serious and violent crimes into the three Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. Local governments, in turn, will refashion their detention centers and programming to accommodate the hundreds of detained youth offenders who will serve time closer to their homes, families and communities, according to the agreement.

The plan allows for one glaring exception. For the near future, the state’s juvenile facilities in San Joaquin ad Ventura counties will remain open for youth who are at risk of prosecution as adults. Thus, there is still no final date for the youth prison system to entirely shut down.

Edgar Ibarra, who was incarcerated from 2008 through 2012 at youth prisons in Ione and Stockton, called the agreement to keep most youth offenders out of the state system a “bittersweet moment.”

The deal also includes the creation of a new agency – the Office of Youth and Community Restoration – which will be tasked with providing oversight of the state’s juvenile justice system.

“When I think of my time there, it was a place of tremendous hurt,” said the 27-year-old Ibarra, who is from Watsonville. Now there will be much work to be done, he said, to make sure local services are in place to help young people better integrate into society, an important part of helping them avoid future incarceration. In his case, Ibarra said he was sent to adult prison just weeks after being discharged from the Division of Juvenile Justice with little support.

“We can’t afford to mess this up,” he said.

While abolishing youth prisons in California may once have seemed a far-off dream for many justice advocates, the sweeping plan has raised some questions. Will still-to-be-developed safeguards prevent counties from transferring youth to the adult justice system? What if 58 counties create 58 versions of justice?

“We don’t want to replace state cages with county cages,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition. Even with the once-unimaginable shift now being rolled out, she added, “we need to stay vigilant.”

Lobbyists for counties and local probation departments also expressed dismay over the plan.

In a letter to lawmakers sent on Saturday, a coalition of groups – including the California State Association of Counties, the Chief Probation Officers of California and the County Behavioral Health Directors Association – called the deal to close down the state’s youth prison system “unacceptable.” Amid the ongoing tumult of the pandemic, the decision to quickly create “an untested state bureaucracy” would divert “critical funding away from direct services to youth,” the letter stated.

California currently holds about 775 young people convicted of serious offenses at three youth prisons and an Amador County fire camp. A far greater number of youth offenders, about 2,250, are held in county facilities run by local probation departments.

Over the years, the state’s youth prison system has been revealed as not only inhumane, but an astronomical cost to taxpayers, with an annual price tag per youth of more than$300,000.

Two decades ago, as many as 10,000 young people ages 12 to 25 were locked up in state facilities in adult prison-like conditions, enduring rampant violence, 23-hour-cell confinement, and school and recreation that took place in mesh cages. Juvenile crime has since plunged, with the hulking detention centers becoming ever-more costly to run for far fewer youth.

This year, with the pandemic blowing a massive hole in the state’s budget and community groups increasingly demanding that juvenile justice live up to its rehabilitative promise, California’s Democratic governor made an unexpected announcement. In his May revision of the budget Newsom called for elimination of the Division of Juvenile Justice and a plan to keep youth closer to home.

With subsequent input from state lawmakers, beginning in July 2021 the plan now includes a new Office of Youth and Community Restoration. The state office will be tasked with providing consistent standards and greater accountability of California’s 58 county juvenile justice systems, which will soon have less ability to rely on the state to treat and house the most challenging offenders. Among them are young people who have suffered deep childhood trauma and struggle with mental health, and whose violent acts have left them facing years of incarceration.

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In line with Newsom’s vision to shift juvenile justice away from corrections oversight, the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration will be part of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. According to the agreement outlined in a budget trailer bill, the office will “promote trauma responsive, culturally informed services.” The new office will also include the state’s first-ever ombudsperson for youth justice, who will be tasked with investigating complaints about harmful conditions or practices at juvenile halls, camps and ranches anywhere in California.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D) said the state’s youth prison system could not be allowed to continue to operate as it long has, with the end result being poor outcomes. In its most recent evaluation – a2017 report based on 2012 numbers – DJJ found nearly 75% of youth who left state institutions were rearrested within three years of release. That dismal performance rate had not budged since a similar accounting for recidivism in 2004.

“This is about providing some sunshine on a system that is not working,” Ting said of the new plan.

Developing placements for young people with high mental health needs found to have committed sex offenses, or for those who have a history of involvement with violent gangs, for example, will be a challenge for many counties that have long sent their most serious offenders to the state facilities.

But there will be new funding available, according to the agreement reached over the weekend between Newsom and the Legislature. In the next fiscal year, counties will be given about $40 million through the new Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant. That number rises to nearly $209 million in the 2024 fiscal year. California is also providing counties with $9.6 million in one-time grants to help them prepare for the new population, including upgrading local juvenile detention facilities to make them more secure.

Since Newsom first proposed shuttering California’s youth prison system in May, advocates have been concerned that the result would be hundreds of youth – overwhelmingly Black and brown – at risk of lengthy terms in adult prisons. They feared that without the option of a state prison for youth offenders who had committed the most serious crimes, more prosecutors and judges would opt for the adult system instead.

In response to those concerns, the new plan will change state law to allow youth to remain in the juvenile justice system past age 21. Now, young people convicted of the most serious offenses will be able to stay in county-run juvenile detention facilities until age 25, mirroring the Division of Juvenile Justice’s age limit. Over the next six months, the state will also develop a new court process for youth facing serious charges, in an effort to prevent their transfer into the adult system.

“This entire program is set up for failure for most of the counties,” Cooper said.

Ibarra, 27, is headed to U.C. Davis this fall. Photo courtesy of Edgar Ibarra.

Ibarra, 27, is headed to U.C. Davis this fall. Photo courtesy of Edgar Ibarra.

Assemblymember Jim Cooper, a Democrat who spent more than three decades as a Sacramento County sheriff’s captain, said the latest statewide plan will be most challenging for smaller, rural counties with fewer resources to handle high-needs youth. Those counties, he said at the Sunday hearing, could now be exposed to costly lawsuits if a county can’t fulfill its legal obligations.

A person’s ZIP code should not determine the services they receive in their county, added Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D). Regardless of the new oversight body being created, Weber said local officials and advocates will have to remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure that all youth offenders have access to appropriate services and are prepared to succeed after time spent locked up.

“When you have a high level of recidivism in young people’s programs, we can’t tolerate that,” Weber said. “We have to get to the point where it makes a difference and we are not just feeding the next level of incarceration.”

Meanwhile, a statewidesurvey released on Friday shows there is widespread support for the shift under way. The poll of 838 Californians by the public policy firm FM3 Research found that 68% of respondents supported the idea of closing youth prisons and replacing them with an agency not affiliated with law enforcement that would provide youth development and social services.

At a recent meeting of the Salinas-based community organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, Ibarra said generations of people who spent time in California’s youth prisons dating back to the 1980sshared similar frustrations. They said they left the youth lockups ill-prepared for life outside, not knowing how to open a bank account or find a job.

As he prepares to attend the University of California at Davis this fall, Ibarra said he hoped Monterey County will help young people now in prison better integrate back into the community where he was raised.

[dc]“W[/dc]e need to set these guys up for success,” Ibarra said, “so they don’t have to go back to prison or get locked up again, like we did.”

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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.