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Prop 57’s decisive victory signals a commitment by voters to keeping young people out of adult courtrooms and in the juvenile justice system. Yet components of the existing juvenile system fall short of its rehabilitative mandate, subjecting youth to unsafe conditions that exacerbate underlying trauma. With the passage of Prop 57, California must confront the realities of its juvenile justice system and take steps to ensure that it meets the treatment needs of all youth.

Most young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have had some prior exposure to an adverse childhood experience (ACE), including abuse or neglect, family violence, or household substance use. 2014 study of youth in Florida’s juvenile justice system found that youth with multiple ACE indicators were at elevated risk for justice systems involvement and future recidivism. Nearly all youth in the study reported at least one adverse experience, and approximately 50 percent reported four or more – far higher than the 12.5 percent measured in the general population.

Childhood trauma can have serious, lifelong impacts on an individual’s health and wellbeing. Research has shown that multiple ACE indicators can predispose a young person to chronic diseases, risky behaviors, and emotional problems. However, proper screenings and interventions can mitigate the effects of an adverse experience. Youth adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, particularly those with extensive exposure to adversity, should be guaranteed high-quality, trauma-informed programming that addresses their underlying needs.

However, many high-needs youth in California’s juvenile justice system are not receiving services in a therapeutic environment. Instead, they are relegated to large congregate institutions, such as the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), where they are exposed to additional trauma. Youth placed in DJJ must first endure the disruption of being removed from their communities and families. They are then subjected to an environment that is fundamentally unsafe and where existing trauma may be exacerbated by the experience of confinement, restraint, threats, or violence.

Despite multiple attempts at reform, California’s state institutions for youth remain inherently nontherapeutic. Currently, each of DJJ’s three congregate facilities is located remotely and houses hundreds of youth – conditions that reinforce endemic violence, deprive youth of vital community supports, and limit oversight. Regardless of quality, the services offered in these state facilities are inherently less effective than those provided in smaller facilities that are nearer to a youth’s community and offer clearer assurances of physical safety.

Yet the myth of the therapeutic and safe congregate institution persists. This spring, the state narrowly avoided a sizeable investment in the construction of new prisons for youth, termed the California Leadership Academy (CLA). Had Governor Brown included the CLA in the 2016 – 17 budget, California would have increased its dependence on a correctional model that is harmful to young people.

Due to the demonstrated failings of the congregate model, neither DJJ nor the proposed CLA are suitable placements for the state’s high-needs youth. Rather, young people with prior exposure to trauma are best served in small facilities and in close proximity to those who are most critical to successful treatment, including family and community support networks. Prop 57’s juvenile justice reforms invite a reexamination of the state’s responsibility to high-needs youth. Rather than increase reliance on state institutions, California must reinvest in small, therapeutic, and local alternatives.

Related Links:

Young Adult Prisons Are Not the Answer

Farrell’s End Gives True Juvenile Justice Reform a Chance

Recognizing the Symptoms of Trauma in Justice-involved Youth