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On February 25th, CJCJ staff observed the final hearing in the nearly 15-year lawsuit — known as the Farrell litigation—against California’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Farrell was initiated in 2002 against what was then the California Youth Authority (CYA) to remediate a system that [was] broken almost everywhere you look.” There were 11 facilities at the time, which held a total of 10,000 youth in custody. CYA’s abuses were stomach-churning and exhaustive. Young people attended class” in cages, and guards taunted and physically abused wards regularly. In at least two instances, teens committed suicide under suspicious circumstances.

The Feb. 25th hearing was held at an Alameda County courthouse and resulted in the termination of the lawsuit. The hearing was brief, as the parties and judge agreed that DJJ had complied with most, but not all, of the minimum requirements to reform conditions of confinement at DJJ. Significantly, plaintiff’s counsel — two attorneys from the Prison Law Office — cited issues that have surfaced recently that [they] are concerned about.” The majority of those in attendance were DJJ staff, including the Director, Michael Minor, other executives, and members of California’s prison guard union. No press was in the audience, but a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) public information officer was present.

While some changes have occurred within the institution, any positive trends can be attributed largely to the decline in DJJ’s population. Because of juvenile justice realignment and the dramatic drop in youth crime, DJJ now operates only three institutions and houses approximately 700 young people. However, even the low number of youth has failed to diminish the rampant violence within DJJ’s facilities, which is inherent to juvenile prisons nationwide.

For example, according to recent DJJ data, there has been approximately one fight on average per day at two facilities. Youth have suffered regular beatings by other youth in custody at all three prisons. Young men in the Behavioral Treatment Program unit at N.A. Chaderjian have been held in solitary confinement for a substantial majority of their waking hours, in violation of DJJ’s own policies. Youth have attempted to commit suicide, and multiple forced sexual acts” have occurred at DJJas recently as November 2015.

Furthermore, DJJ has failed to implement the cornerstone of its reform plan — the Integrated Behavior Treatment Model (IBTM), which requires an entire restructuring of the staff functions and institutional routines — a stated goal since the 1940s that has never been achieved. As of October 2015, the IBTM was in only 54 percent substantial compliance.

CJCJ fears that history is already beginning to repeat itself. Overcrowding was a contributing factor to many of the problems precipitating Farrell; yet, the DJJ population has risen over the last year—despite a continual decrease in youth crime and violence. Previously closed living units have been reopened, and during the hearing, DJJ Director Michael Minor conveyed that he hopes to see DJJ’s numbers increase.” Moreover, the CDCR has entered into a contract with the court-appointed monitor of the Farrell litigation, Nancy Campbell, to develop a plan to build multiple large facilities for 18- to 25-year-olds.

We are at a critical moment in California’s juvenile justice history. National experts have called for the closure of all state juvenile prisons, citing them as relics of a past century that are damaging to youth and public safety alike. Moreover, research consistently demonstrates that high-risk adolescents have the best rehabilitative outcomes when they are treated in their communities. California juvenile justice advocates agree that smaller and closer is better.” Unfortunately, DJJ/CDCR appear to be more concerned with their survival and collective identity than the welfare of California’s most vulnerable youth.

Farrell’s dismissal places California youth justice stakeholders at a crossroads. We can either go down the same dead-end path that we have followed for over 100 years that has produced the same results, or we can follow the road less-travelled and do what we know is best and right for our young people: bring them home.