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In early May, Governor Gavin Newsom released a revision to his proposed 2019 – 20 State Budget, providing new details on planned reform to California’s state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The May Revision and other recent budget documents make clear that the Governor’s plan to end youth imprisonment in California as we know it” will consist, initially, of moving DJJ from the adult prison system, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), into the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA).

CJCJ supports the Governor’s proposal to move DJJ because we believe that effective treatment and care start with approaches that address past trauma and prioritize youths’ health and well-being. However, we are concerned that an administrative shift alone will not effect meaningful change in the dangerous and fundamentally non-rehabilitative state facilities. CJCJ’s research indicates that the greatest barriers to safety and rehabilitation at DJJ are endemic to the institutions themselves: they are large, prison-like, and far from youths’ communities. No amount of new training or administrative reorganization will bring youth closer to their families or remake the fundamentally-flawed facilities.

With similar concerns, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has submitted an analysis of the Governor’s proposal that poses a series of questions pertaining to costs, outcomes, and alternatives. In one such alternative, the LAO describes the merits of fully realigning California’s juvenile justice system and reaffirms its 2012 position in favor of closing the DJJ facilities and returning youth to local juvenile justice systems. The report cites substantial vacant space in county camps, ranches, and juvenile halls and explains that realignment would allow the state to avoid the large fixed costs of its facilities, and make better use of existing county facilities by placing the existing DJJ population in them.”

In recent budget subcommittee hearings, members of the Legislature voiced general support for the move, but called for additional reforms that could broaden its impact. Several members raised the issue of DJJ’s poor outcomes and asked how the administration planned to evaluate the success of the transition. Further, a number of members expressed interest in reimagining the state’s role in juvenile justice and discussed the development of an independent commission to plan for the transition and explore alternatives to the existing institutions. 

For example, in a Senate Budget Subcommittee 5 hearing on May 2, Senator Jim Beall, author of CJCJ-cosponsored SB 284 (The Keep Youth Closer to Home Act), spoke to California’s continued reliance on DJJ’s outmoded facilities: “[The DJJ facilities] are designed to hold a much larger population than we have now. If you’re going to set up a model, wouldn’t you look at smaller facilities located in the areas where the young people live?”

The hearings also provided opportunities for advocates, community members, and young people to speak out about conditions at DJJ and the need for immediate reform. Katie Dixon, a Policy Fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and former DJJ youth, described life in the institutions, saying it is definitely a prison,” and called for a more inclusive planning process: We have to have the CBOs at the table when discussing this major reorganization…we have to have someone there with lived experience.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the Governor has requested $1.2 million for 8.8 new full-time staff positions to undertake planning for the transition and develop a new staff training institute. The move itself would take effect on July 1, 2020 with future costs of approximately $1.8 million per year. These cost details build on trailer bill language released by the Governor’s office in late April that outlines several key components of the reform, including a provision that DJJ’s name be changed to the Department of Youth and Community Restoration.

During this transition, the Department of Finance is also predicting a substantial increase in DJJ’s youth population and a large boost in its operational spending. From the current fiscal year to the next, DJJ is projected to grow by nearly 20 percent, or 120 youth, with an $18 million increase in its budget. This will bring total spending well over $220 million, with annual per youth costs of nearly $300,000.

DJJ’s long history of abuse and neglect continues today. Research and best practices show that youth are far better served in small, close-to-home settings where they can maintain close contact with loved ones and supportive community members. Although the move from CDCR to HSSA is a positive step for DJJ, it is not enough. California must undertake broader transformation of its juvenile justice system that brings an end to the existing state-run institutions and returns youth to their communities.

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