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California’s youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), commonly referred to as DJJ, is entering its tenth year under a consent decree to reform its practices to provide safe and rehabilitative environment. Periodic reports to the court indicate both progress and set-backs over the past decade. In October 2013, the latest and 27th Report of the Special Master was filed with the court in Alameda County, summarized in this compliance table.

One of the most significant changes seen is the drastic population reductions from 3,462 youth in 2004 to under 700 today. With a smaller youth population, the system has inevitably changed. Many of the oldest facilities, historically referred to as gladiator schools” have closed. Youth are no longer participating in group therapy from cages, medical care has improved, and youth are attending school more consistently. This past fall the Sexual Behavior Treatment Program was released of external monitoring, the first of 6 major plans to achieve this status since the consent decree. However, despite these gradual and necessary reforms, an authentic transition towards a rehabilitative environment has not occurred.

The three remaining congregate facilities are either at or slightly over capacity, compromising efforts for youth to have access to specialized programs or reside in smaller living units. It was made clear in the most recent report to the court, that replacing existing facilities will not be possible due to the declining population and overwhelming cost of construction. Dr. Krisberg, Safety and Welfare expert observed, these are still prison-like” facilities.

DJF cell

Photo by CJCJ

Prison architecture sets-up a dynamic of surveillance and control, preventing an atmosphere for authentic treatment to occur. An effective design for rehabilitating the most serious and chronic offenders is the Missouri Model, which maintains small cottage-like living units and integrates all components of their youths’ treatment plans. Therefore, recent aesthetic improvements, such as decorations by youth and new paint do not conceal the inherent structural problems of congregate care institutions. For instance, the staff use of force rate is still too high.”

The Special Master found, “… the two key outstanding issues are use of force against single youth and use of chemical agents against youth with a mental health designation.”

Gang affiliations are also common in these congregate prison-like settings, and are often indicative of the lack of safety in the facility. Gang Expert Cheryl Maxon’s 2013 report found 46% of male youth in DJF self-report to be in an institutional gang. A gang workgroup has written a proposal to address this issue; however, it is not clear when or how it will be integrated within the new treatment model DJF is trying to implement.

The overwhelming failure of DJF is its inability to provide a coordinated case planning and management system. This continues to prevent staff from determining appropriate services and treatment for youth under its care. Even with fully developed curricula and staff training, youth are not referred to appropriate treatment programs or monitored to meet treatment goals, negating any system-wide progress.

At the October 24, 2013 hearing, Judge True remarked on this central piece of reform. There are basic case management lessons that should have been learned and should have been implemented,” from the beginning.

In order for DJF to fully meet and sustain the goals of the consent decree reform cannot just happen by way of “ individual efforts of enlightened personnel, but wide recognition by the system,” Judge True explained.

For a complete history of DJF’s reform efforts, refer to this Farrell litigation timeline. For more resources on this issue visit Juvenile Corrections Reform in California, and an archive of Special Master Report compliance tables.