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California’s State Youth Correctional System Will Pass into History

The Preston School of Industry, opened in 1894.

Today is a historic day in California. It marks the start of a scale-down process that will end in the closure of the state’s infamous youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). With few exceptions, youth today can no longer be sent to DJJ institutions. Within two years, the facilities will permanently close, ending a brutal chapter in California’s history and ensuring that future generations will be spared DJJ’s culture of fear and violence. 

“The closure of the DJJ facilities will bring an end to an ugly chapter of California history. These institutions were relics of a 19th century penitentiary model and have been a constant source of controversy since they first opened in the 1890s. The closure of DJJ ushers in a new era of localized juvenile justice and hopefully sets the stage for a more humane family oriented and youth centered approach.”

Daniel Macallair, Executive Director, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

For decades, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) has fought alongside community partners to abolish youth prisons. CJCJ’s Executive Director Daniel Macallair has long argued that superficial alterations, such as new buildings or leadership changes, could never fix the fundamental structural deficiencies of large, congregate institutions. By their nature, these facilities disconnect youth from their families, promote violence, and fail to achieve rehabilitation.

Youth posed in front of the state’s Preston School of Industry in 1894 (left) and 1994 (right).

Despite California’s repeated attempts to reform and reorganize its facilities, the state could never change the abusive and brutal daily realities youth confronted. Since the mid 1980s, CJCJ has co-sponsored several state bills seeking to shrink or eliminate DJJ, published dozens of investigations exposing its inhumane conditions, and challenged hundreds of DJJ commitments on behalf of youth clients. By maintaining focus on DJJ’s harsh realities, we worked to provide a critical counterpoint to DJJ’s routine bureaucratic pronouncements that all was well within the system. When public scandals erupted over staff sexual abuse, youth suicides, staff-organized fights, or inhumane living conditions, we carried on the call for closure.

Confined youth at the Preston School of Industry in the 1960s (left) and the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in 2018 (right).

Now, we celebrate the end of a dark era in youth justice. This is an achievement shared by community organizers, parents, attorneys, policy advocates, governmental staff, and, above all, the thousands of young people who have endured violence and isolation behind DJJ’s walls. Through the years, youth have bravely revisited past traumas and risked retaliation in order to support future generations of young people. They shed light on conditions at DJJ by testifying in courtrooms, speaking to the press, and sharing their harrowing experiences with elected officials and state oversight bodies. Acts of courage by directly impacted people have made today’s victory possible.

“Violence is heavy in there and it keeps the whole place bound.”

Youth recently confined in DJJ

A lockdown unit at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility.

While it is important to honor this moment, it is also a time to stay vigilant about conditions inside DJJ and critical improvements needed in county systems. DJJ will continue to confine young people for the next two years. Although its youth population will start to decline, those who remain are at risk of continued mistreatment. DJJ’s administration and staff are now far less motivated to make safety improvements and may scale back already limited programs as the agency nears closure. We need to continue monitoring DJJ facilities while also turning our attention to the county systems that will replace it.

“That place made me feel like I didn’t have a voice so when I got out, people would have to tell me, ‘You can speak up and you can say something...’”

Youth recently confined in DJJ

Many local juvenile justice systems are also rife with abuse, harmful conditions, and inadequate programming, with little oversight. For nearly a decade, CJCJ and our partners have closely monitored the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), a powerful state agency that oversees county-run correctional facilities. The BSCC often turns a blind eye when juvenile facilities place youth in extended solitary confinement, deploy pepper spray indiscriminately or in enclosed spaces, and overuse handcuffs or other restraints. In recognition of the BSCC’s poor track record for keeping youth safe, the state plans to shift county oversight responsibilities—and youth justice grant programs—to a newly formed Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR). It is critical that OYCR be given the resources and authority it needs to hold counties accountable for the youth in their care. 

Closing DJJ is a critical step toward transforming youth justice in California. As all counties begin serving higher-needs youth close to home, local systems must grapple with their own histories of harm stemming from poor probation practices and lack of services. Already, far too many youth are placed in juvenile halls, sent home with ankle monitors, or subjected to years of probation supervision. Local leaders must heed the lessons of DJJ: locked facilities staffed by those with law enforcement backgrounds cannot address the needs that first brought youth into the justice system.

Mural in the Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall by a formerly confined youth who now serves as a community organizer.

To better serve young people, counties must instead invest in community-led programs that treat youths’ underlying needs in a supportive setting. By building up community services and reducing reliance on lockups, big and small, California can begin to remedy a century of harm. 

CJCJ will continue our collective fight to protect young people at DJJ and in local juvenile facilities. We will investigate conditions and advocate for community-based alternatives to incarceration. Our vigilance continues with a bold vision that continues as long as the doors to freedom are locked.


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