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Decades of Abuse at California’s DJJ Will End in 2023

Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2021-22 state budget finalizes plans for the closure of California’s barbaric state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Beginning on July 1, 2021, DJJ will end most youth admissions to its facilities. By June 30, 2023, it will permanently close its doors along with a dark chapter in California’s history.

For 80 years, DJJ has subjected youth to inhumane conditions, rampant violence, and appalling abuses. Closing these institutions is a critical first step in repairing the harm done to tens of thousands of Californians across generations.

Yet DJJ’s looming closure carries risks to the youth there today. For almost a year, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented families, watchdogs, and many government officials from seeing inside the facilities. With fewer eyes on the system and staff morale sapped by closure plans, there is greater potential for the mistreatment of youth. For the hundreds of young people currently confined at DJJ – some of whom will spend several more years in the facilities – it is critical that the state step up independent oversight. The 2021-22 state budget should include additional funding for the Inspector General whose small office is tasked with monitoring the whole of California’s 90,000-person prison system. During the pandemic, the Inspector General has performed the essential task of reporting on inadequate safety precautions as COVID-19 has soared in adult prisons, infecting at least half of the population. Now, there is an increased need for the OIG’s expertise at DJJ to ensure youth are safe during the transition.

It is also time to begin shrinking the state’s massive DJJ budget while encouraging counties to serve more youth locally. Beginning this summer, DJJ’s population is expected to begin declining steadily through attrition as counties will no longer be able to commit new youth to the state system. Yet the Governor proposes allocating more, not less, funding to support DJJ’s operations in the coming year. Its preliminary budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year is $224 million, roughly $14 million more than DJJ expects to spend in fiscal year 2020-21. Meanwhile, the state is planning to pay counties $46.5 million for keeping youth at the local level, $50 million in one-time funding to support this realignment effort (plus the implementation of a bill limiting adult probation), and $9.6 million to counties for the creation of regional programs for youth who would otherwise be sent to DJJ.

As we move towards closure, California must reduce DJJ’s budget commensurate with declines in the system’s youth population. DJJ currently confines 695 youth, yet the Governor’s budget proposal predicts that next year’s population will average 726. DJJ institutions will certainly shrink, not grow, under a near halt to new admissions. True costs could fall by tens of millions.

DJJ has high fixed and labor costs. It currently operates four outdated facilities that are just 43 percent full and employs two staff for every one youth. In the lead-up to DJJ’s closure in 2023, California could drastically reduce DJJ’s workforce and even close an institution, allowing the state to achieve larger budget reductions and free up resources for critical programs. 

Thousands of Californians have borne witness to DJJ’s traumatic conditions across the decades. Revelations of its beatings, “gladiator fights,” suicides, and sexual abuses have sent repeated shockwaves through the state. Yet each time its abuses came to light, state leaders failed to take the one step that would end the violence. Finally, with the FY 2021-22 budget, California is prepared to close its DJJ facilities and begin correcting one of its greatest failings. This long-awaited move spares future generations from the harm of a prison-like environment. However, hundreds of currently confined youth remain at risk. The state’s budget must reflect its plans for DJJ by cutting spending on an overbuilt system and investing in keeping youth safe.


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