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Institutional setting continues to hinder DJF staff reform efforts

Age-old practices have slowly begun to shift at California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) as staff experiment with common-sense reforms, such as positive reinforcement, limiting use of isolation, and providing access to outdoor recreational space.  However, barriers towards sustainable reform will exist as long as youth are housed in outdated institutions.  Physical facilities need to be replaced, lock-downs are commonplace, youth have difficulty expressing grievances, and the recent increase in “out-of-room” time is frequently spent watching T.V.  Even with simple improvements, research demonstrates congregate facilities do not adequately provide rehabilitative services for youth in California, or nationwide.  
As discussed in the Twenty-forth Report of the Special Master, documenting the oversight of the Farrell lawsuit, the apparent culture-change is encouraging.  The realization that reliance on punitive practices causes harm, even towards youth with particularly challenging behavioral issues, is being fostered by the implementation of the Integrated Behavioral Treatment Model (IBTM) at O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility.  While change has been sluggish over the past 9 years, it appears acceptance of this crucial component of the reform process is finally in the works.  The Special Master noted staff’s surprise at “how quickly the RS [Reinforcement System] is changing youth behavior,” just by rewarding youth with items such as candy bars and shampoo bottles.  
In addition to beginning to incorporate positive reinforcement, some improvements have been made to DJF’s physical conditions.  This includes opening a recreation center at the O.H. Close and N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility campus and replacing industrial furniture in the girls unit at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility to softer couches and round tables.  It is refreshing to hear DJF discuss the value of creating “home-like” settings for these youth; however, DJF will still be unable to reach full compliance in this area due to the dilapidated conditions of many buildings.  The Special Master explains, 
“with continuing uncertainties in the youth population and the state budget dilemma, it is unrealistic to expect any new facility to be constructed to replace the existing ones.”
After a nearly a decade and a population down to less than 800 youth,  DJF has finally begun to make some culture shifts and reach “Substantial Compliance” in a majority of areas.  However, these compliance ratings cannot be taken at face value.  Safety and Welfare Remedial Plan expert Barry Krisberg cautions, the ratings “are not weighted relative to their difficulty and complexity in implementation and criticality to the reform efforts.”  Furthermore,
“many of the audit items cover the creation of formal policies and procedures but not necessarily how well these new systems are actually working. It is the classic difference between evaluating laws on the books and laws in action [emphasis added].” 
The ineffectiveness of confining youth to congregate care facilities is clear, with recidivism estimates nearing 60%, and leading research in the field pointing to the negative long-term effects of youth incarceration, including reduced likelihood of high school graduation and employment.  Rather than continuing to put a band-aid on this outdated model, the high-risk and high-needs youth currently housed at DJF deserve structured treatment-focused rehabilitation that can only occur in a therapeutic setting.  It is time to break free from our unhealthy and historic dependence on institutionalizing youth to ensure smooth transitions back to their families and communities. 

Keywords: DJF/DJJ, Emily Luhrs, Farrell

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice, Correctional Institutions

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