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In early January, Governor Gavin Newsom released his proposed budget for the 2022 – 23 Fiscal Year (FY). It included nearly $200 million for the soon-to-close Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), California’s state-run youth correctional system. DJJ has been plagued by scandal and abuse since its inception 80 years ago. In 2020, recognizing the system’s high costs and lengthy record of harm, the Governor and Legislature moved to close DJJ and return youth to county custody. According to the plan, DJJ would end new admissions by July 2021, allowing its youth population to steadily decline over two years until its doors close on June 302023

Living conditions are worsening amid COVID-19 and staff shortages

The roughly 600 youth currently confined at DJJ will be the last to endure DJJ’s brutal living conditions and culture of violence. Yet, in its final years, youth are facing two unprecedented threats: surging COVID-19 and widespread staff shortages. More than 70% of young people have been infected with COVID-19 in just the last several months. Given our monitoring track record, CJCJ often receives calls from families, staff, and partner organizations regarding DJJ conditions. Youth report being isolated in their cells for hours each day, unable to access typical educational or rehabilitative programming. They tell us that they are not receiving clean clothes and not getting enough to eat. Some detail horrific abuses at the hands of staff, including physical assaults and excessive use of force. To manage its extreme staff shortfall, which ranged from 25% to 33% vacancy in November 2021, DJJ has resorted to bringing in guards from adult prisons. 

State leaders must prioritize youth releases over filling staff vacancies

Without enough staff to keep the facilities safe and operating normally, and with less than a year and a half until closure, the Governor’s administration should be actively reducing DJJ’s youth population. This can be done by expediting releases for the large number of youth who are ready to return home. Unfortunately, the Governor has shown an unwillingness to consider fast-tracking releases, even in the midst of these crises. Therefore, the Legislature, in its work on the annual budget, must lead a push for early releases. At a minimum, lawmakers should ensure that budgetary pressures do not keep youth confined in DJJ any longer than necessary.

Lately, releases have become a source of stress and uncertainty for youth. Some report not knowing when they will be sent home, having their hearing dates changed, or being repeatedly denied release by the Board of Juvenile Hearings, a DJJ entity resembling a parole board. DJJ’s system of releases places heavy emphasis on the opinions of DJJ staff and leadership. A single disciplinary write-up prior to a youth’s hearing could result in several more months in the institutions. 

Too large of a budget may push DJJ to keep their youth population high

It is concerning that this year’s budget is built on the presumption that few youth will be paroled and sent home prior to closure. While DJJ’s current youth population is just over 600, the Governor’s Department of Finance is projecting that nearly 500 youth will remain at DJJ on its final day of operation in 2023. DJJ’s transition plan identifies just 250 youth who are ineligible for release prior to closure, and DJJ Director Heather Bowlds has acknowledged that most youth will go before the Board of Juvenile Hearings before then. This means that the administration is assuming most youth will be denied a chance at release. Yet we know this is typically not the case. In past years, youth releases have numbered in the hundreds, not the dozens, and DJJ’s average length of stay was consistently less than 2.5 years.

With $200 million in funding built around these inflated population projections, the administration is embedding harmful pressure into DJJ’s budget. In an effort to keep numbers up, youth could be kept too long in the facilities or lose opportunities for fairly earned parole. All the while, DJJ would remain short-staffed and unable to provide basic care to its overly large youth population. 

In the coming months, members of the State Legislature will have the opportunity to craft their own version of the FY 2022 – 23 budget. During this time, they must look carefully at DJJ’s population projections and transition plan (which DJJ failed to deliver by its January 1, 2022 deadline). Through budget hearings and negotiations, members of the Legislature should ask questions of DJJ and the administration, modify the proposed budget to reflect the true needs of a shrinking system, and advocate for the humane treatment of youth who will remain behind DJJ’s walls.