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California’s opportunity to move beyond prison-like facilities for youth

Courtney Lam

In July, the Youth Law Center filed a complaint against the San Diego County Probation Department, citing multiple cases of mistreatment and excessive use of force in their juvenile halls. In one incident, staff members sprayed a girl who refused to strip naked in front of them, including a male staffer, after she was told she was going to be placed on suicide watch. After she vomited from the pepper spray, they sprayed her until she agreed. She was then ordered to crawl out of her cell and, after being handcuffed, her clothes were forcibly removed. She was then put in a gown and placed in solitary confinement for 48 hours.

These types of traumatizing experiences are too common in California’s juvenile justice system, which often mimic prison-like conditions that promote fear and violence, not rehabilitation. Excessive use-of-force has proven to be an inevitable outcome of such congregate care institutions, along with an overreliance on isolation and restraint. These facilities interfere with the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile justice system. Now, with funding available for new county juvenile facilities, the state has an important opportunity to eradicate such harmful conditions and the poor practices they produce. Instead, they can help prepare youth for reintegration back into the community by providing therapeutic, normalized environments. 

For decades, California’s state juvenile justice system was plagued by overcrowding, abuse, suicides, and high levels of violence, eventually resulting in multiple lawsuits known as the Farrell Litigation in 2004. Three years later, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger began realigning juvenile corrections from the state to the county, recognizing that most youth could be better served at the county level rather than in state institutions. County facilities are better equipped to provide a continuum of services post-release, and allow youths to remain closer to their families and other community supports. The legislation also allocated construction funding for youth facilities to help counties manage their increased responsibilities. The first round of that funding was allocated in 2008, primarily for building new secure facilities or expanding old ones, often mimicking the state-level congregate care institutions they were designed to replace.

In December, counties submitted proposals for the second round of funding. As the state evaluates their applications, it should take the opportunity to create truly rehabilitative non-residential facilities, emphasizing best practices in youth corrections and alternatives to secure residential facilities. California has changed significantly since juvenile realignment began, with youth crime and youth detention at historic lows. There is a better understanding of what works and what does not in supporting youth rehabilitation. Best practices in youth corrections include small facilities with substantial space for educational and therapeutic programs and creating a homelike, normalized environment — for example, using non-institutional furnishings, providing bathroom privacy, and allowing youth to wear normal clothes.

Those managing youth facilities should not rely on use of force, which contradicts the rehabilitative environment the juvenile justice system was meant to create. Rather, they should be trained on de-escalation techniques, conflict mediation, and culturally competent therapeutic care. As demonstrated in Missouri with the state’s much-heralded youth facilities, staff can create a physically and emotionally safe environment by building positive relationships with youth, rendering unnecessary excessive force measures like pepper spray. Youth in juvenile facilities need to feel safe in order to achieve the benefits of therapy and counseling. Positive and effective communication skills as well as the goal of rehabilitation should not be a mere afterthought — it should be the focus of the staff.

The punitive prison-like facilities that dominate juvenile corrections are clearly not working. If the goal is to rehabilitate youth, then California counties should use this funding opportunity to create nurturing environments, including programming and therapy space, not more punitive congregate care facilities that perpetuate violence.

Keywords: alternatives to incarceration, BSCC, juvenile halls

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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