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Razor wire fences surround O.H. Close, a DJJ youth correctional facility.

In January, in one of his first acts as Governor, Gavin Newsom pledged to end youth imprisonment in California as we know it” and called for a radical reorganization of the state’s troubled youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). As part of this proposal, the Governor plans to move DJJ from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — the agency that operates California’s state prisons — to the Health and Human Services Agency. Governor Newsom also recently appointed the state’s first-ever Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a leader in the field of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. These actions signal a commitment by the Governor’s administration to bringing a trauma-informed lens to the treatment and care of justice-involved youth. 

As the Governor’s DJJ proposal takes shape this spring, advocates and state leaders must ensure that it includes a clear plan for shuttering the violent DJJ facilities and developing close-to-home alternatives. Specifically, CJCJ recommends that the state begin planning for the phased closure of DJJ and prepare county systems to assume responsibility for youth who would otherwise be placed in state custody.

Today’s youth represent the safest generation on record. They are arrested, prosecuted, and confined in juvenile facilities at historically low rates. Since the 1990s, the population of California’s state-run youth facilities has fallen by more than 93 percent from its peak of 10,000 youth to approximately 650 today.

Although these trends should necessitate a dramatic shrinking of the juvenile justice system, California continues to operate two large systems of secure juvenile facilities, one at the state and one at the county level, each with a large fiscal footprint. In FY 2018 – 19, California is poised to spend nearly $200 million on DJJ’s three remaining correctional facilities and its fire camp, amounting to more than $300,000 per youth. 

In addition to its high price tag, DJJ imposes profound human costs on confined youth, their families, and their communities. CJCJ recently released a report detailing conditions in the DJJ facilities, finding that they are highly violent, secretive, and inherently ineffective at rehabilitating youth. Their harsh, prison-like conditions exacerbate youths’ underlying trauma and needlessly expose them to family separation. Youth released from DJJ struggle to adjust to life on the outside and find it difficult to navigate the transition from state custody to county supervision. The result is high rates of recidivism and low levels of employment or education after release. 

Additionally, we find:

  • Violence and use-of-force rates have increased in recent years in nearly all of the DJJ facilities; 
  • DJJ has seen a recent spike in attempted suicides and high rates of youth injuries;
  • Youth are routinely isolated on lockdown with limited access to education and programming;
  • Approximately half of youth at DJJ are from counties more than 100 miles away.

In contrast to DJJ’s antiquated approach to youth corrections, best practices recommend that, if youth are confined, they should be held in small, close-to-home facilities that allow for a smooth transition back into their communities. Though conditions in county facilities vary, they all provide what DJJ cannot: close, regular contact with loved ones and support systems. Small facilities are better able to maintain safety, foster healthy relationships between youth and staff, and offer access to the family and community-based resources that are essential to youths’ long-term wellbeing and success. 

California’s counties have both the capacity and resources to absorb DJJ’s population. Nearly every county has its own secure, probation-run facility for youth, such as a camp, ranch, or juvenile hall. These local facilities are operating at well below capacity with nearly 9,000 vacant beds, and many have abundant treatment space. Counties receive hundreds of millions of state dollars each year to serve young people at the local level, including the Youthful Offender Block Grant ($141 million in FY 16 – 17), Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act ($139 million in FY 16 – 17), and Youth Reinvestment Grant ($37 million). More than one-third of counties also received a share of $300 million in one-time funding for the construction or renovation of their local youth facilities.

As California considers the fate of its juvenile justice system, the Governor, Legislature, and youth advocacy community must push beyond a basic restructuring of the state institutions and resolve to bring youth home from DJJ. The lessons of history are clear: large, prison-like facilities are impervious to reform. Only by ending our reliance on the state system can we ensure that youth are treated humanely in settings that can repair harm, address underlying needs, and prepare them for life after release. 

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