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Juvenile Corrections Reform in California

On June 30, 2023, California closed its state-run youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). DJJ, formerly the California Youth Authority (CYA), had a 132-year history of neglect and abuse. For generations, DJJ subjected young people to inhumane living conditions, a culture of violence, rampant staff abuse, and painful separation from loved ones.

It also failed at its basic goal — rehabilitation. While DJJ promised education and treatment, its programs could never negate the harm of institutionalization. Recidivism rates among youth released from DJJ were staggeringly high, and many young people returned to their communities without plans for school, jobs, or a safe place to live. Youth left DJJ worse than when they arrived, many saddled with lifelong trauma. Some never returned at all.

I lost God while I was at the YA. I thought,​‘If there were a God, He would never let this place exist.”

Youth formerly committed to the California Youth Authority (CJCJ, 2002)

This page will plot the major events from when the first reform school opened in 1891 until the state’s final youth prisons closed in 2023, and the 132 years of brutality in between. DJJ’s history offers a few key lessons. Namely, that abuse is endemic to youth institutions. Over the decades, DJJ cycled between public scandal and hollow attempt at reform without ever achieving a safe or therapeutic environment for youth. It was a recognition of this pattern — along with record-low youth crime, state budget pressures, and tireless campaign work by youth, family members, and advocates — that led to the 2020 decision to close DJJ.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers have failed to heed DJJ’s central lesson, instead investing in dozens of prison-like youth facilities in counties throughout California. This dangerously flawed approach is placing yet another generation of youth at risk of worsening mental and physical health, derailed educational and vocational goals, fractured family relationships, and deepening involvement in the justice system. As DJJ’s failures made clear, true healing cannot happen within concrete cells or behind razor wire.

Reformers come and reformers go. State institutions carry on. Nothing in their history suggests they can sustain reform, no matter what money, what staff, and programs are pumped into them. The same crises that have plagued them for 150 years intrude today. Though the cast may change, the players go on producing failure.”

Jerome G. Miller, founder of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (Miller, 1991)

The Preston School of Industry has 18 marked graves. Many of these youth died from illnesses, such as tuberculosis, meningitis, pneumonia, and appendicitis. At least one youth, Samuel Goins, died violently. He was shot while trying to escape from Preston. Youth continued to die in the state system nearly until its closure. Two youth died in Ventura in 2019.

Historical Overview

1. The reform school era ushers in abuse and violence that will define the system for 132 years

  • 1890: The California State Legislature establishes the state’s first correctional institutions for youth. They are referred to as reform schools.”
  • 1891: The first such reform school, the Whittier State Reformatory for Boys and Girls, opens.
  • 1914: The state inflicts forced sterilization on poor, primarily non-white youth.

2. Decades of repeated reorganization fail to change the system’s culture

  • 1939: The suspicious suicide of a 13-year-old boy amid widespread abuse and mistreatment prompts a state investigation.
  • 1942: The state reorganizes its youth facilities by moving them from the Division of Institutions into a new entity, the California Youth Authority (CYA).
  • 1961: The state reorganizes its youth facilities again. CYA is placed under a new agency: The Youth and Adult Corrections Agency.
  • 1969: The state reorganizes its youth facilities for a third time, placing CYA and the department overseeing adult prisons under the Human Relations Agency (later the Health and Welfare Agency).
  • 1969 – 1972: Massachusetts becomes first state to close its youth prisons under the pioneering leadership of Dr. Jerome G. Miller. The closing of the Massachusetts youth correctional institutions demonstrated that these facilities were obsolete and established a new standard for juvenile justice reform. Miller later founded CJCJ to pursue prison closure in California.
  • 1980: California reorganizes its facilities once again by placing CYA within the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. A familiar strategy for an intractable problem.
  • 1982 – 1988: The Commonweal Research Institute releases a series of reports condemning CYA’s abusive practices.
  • 1986: CJCJ formally established in San Francisco by Dr. Jerome Miller, who orchestrated the closing of youth prisons when he was Commissioner of the Massachusetts Dept. of Youth Services.
  • 1986: CJCJ establishes an alternative sentencing program to divert youth from the California Youth Authority.
  • 1988: California Legislature, Senate Select Committee on Children and Youth: Hearing on The California Youth Authority. Testimony presented by CJCJ’s Vincent Schiraldi and Daniel Macallair called for deinstitutionalization of state correctional facilities.

3. The superpredator” myth spreads and more youth are placed in overcrowded facilities

  • 1994: Little Hoover Commission Task Force issues report: The Juvenile Challenge: Making Prevention a Priority. CJCJ’s Daniel Macallair served on the task force.
  • 1996: CYA’s population reaches its peak at more than 10,000 youth.
  • 1996: Governor Wilson Task Force on Juvenile Crime and the Juvenile Justice Response issues final report. CJCJ’s Daniel Macallair testified as an expert.
  • 1999: Staff are found to be punishing youth by denying them food and handcuffing them around the clock. Scandal erupts when the public learns of staff organizing fights between youth in what was referred to as Friday Night Fights.
  • 2000: A female youth sues alleging she was repeatedly molested by staff. An inspector finds that staff keep some youth in their cells for 23 hours a day.
  • 2000: California Legislature: Joint Informational Hearing on the California Youth Authority. Included testimony of Chief Probation Officer John Lum of San Luis Obispo, who suspended CYA commitments from his county after conducting an investigation.
  • 2002: CJCJ releases report: Aftercare as Afterthought: Reentry and the California Youth Authority
  • 2003: A youth commits suicide, the 13th since 1996.

4. Deplorable conditions prompt 12 years of court monitoring

  • 2003: The Prison Law Office sues CYA over poor conditions and rampant violence.
  • 2004: CYA is placed under a consent decree, bringing routine monitoring and court oversight.
  • 2004: CJCJ staff testify on the harms of CYA in the State Legislature.
  • 2005: CJCJ issues report: Restructuring Juvenile Corrections in California: A Report to the State Legislature. Report provides a plan for closing the State’s archaic youth correctional institutions and replacing them with county or regional facilities.
  • 2005: CJCJ hosts the Restructuring Youth Corrections in California conference and submits a blueprint to the California State Legislature on closing the state’s youth correctional facilities and expanding county juvenile justice services.
  • 2005: The state reorganizes again, dissolving the CYA and placing its facilities within DJJ, a division of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which administers adult prisons.
  • 2007: A new law (SB 81) restricts the types of youth counties could commit to DJJ to reduce the institutional population and address massive county sentencing disparities.
  • 2007 & 2012: CJCJ Executive Director Daniel Macallair, testifies in the Capitol and argues for DJJ’s closure.
  • 2008: The Little Hoover Commission calls for DJJ’s closure. CJCJ’s Daniel Macallair provides testimony and serves on the Little Hoover Commission’s Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.
  • 2009: CJCJ issues report entitled: Closing California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities: An Analysis of County Institutional Capacity.
  • 2003 – 2011: California closes 7 facilities due to falling youth populations and persistent advocacy.
  • 2010: CJCJ issues updated report: Closing California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities: An Analysis of County Institutional Capacity.
  • 2010: CJCJ issues report: The California Miracle: Drastically Reduced Youth Incarceration, Drastically Reduced Youth Crime.
  • 2011: CJCJ & Sierra Health Foundation issue Report: Renewing Juvenile Justice. Provides a blue print for creating a county-based juvenile justice system.
  • 2011: CJCJ issues report: Closing California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities: An Analysis of County Institutional Capacity: An Update — as part of Juvenile Justice Realignment Series.
  • 2012: Governor Jerry Brown nearly closes DJJ, but retreats amid pressure from interest groups.
  • 2012: The Legislative Analyst’s Office releases a report recommending that state leaders close DJJ and realign juvenile justice to the counties.
  • 2015: CJCJ Executive Director Daniel Macallair publishes After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of Twenty-First Century Reform chronicling DJJ’s repeated failures over more than a century.

5. Continued failures culminate in an end to the state’s correctional system

With the closure of DJJ, monitoring of youth correctional facilities must happen at the local level. CJCJ continues to offer support with investigations and reporting on county issues. 

Key Resources

  • DJJ storytelling archive - to be released on our Primary Sources page soon.
  • You can browse our extensive DJJ monitoring reports.
  • With DJJ’s closure, we are still a reliable source for the collected DJJ data bank, no longer available on their site. 

Please reach out to each if you would like to contribute to our research and/​or archive of materials and stories from California’s youth prisons. You can contact us at cjcjmedia@​cjcj.​org