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While California’s juvenile justice system engages in reform, the archaic and punitive traditions of the immigration system hamper its progress and undermine the best practices approach taken by the legislature and local officials.

Californian youth today are some of the most law-abiding people in the state. As youth crime rates have plummeted, so has the need for youth correctional facilities. In fact, California’s juvenile justice system is in a steady process of deincarceration. The state correctional facilities now house less than 750 youth (down from a peak of 10,000 in 1996), and local jurisdictions are investing more and more in alternatives to secure custody.

The vast majority of youth who come into contact with the justice system do not require institutional care. In fact, the juvenile court system was developed in 1899 in recognition of the special status of youth as amenable to and worthy of rehabilitation. Most youth will grow out of their delinquent behaviors without any intervention, while others are heavily influenced by their environmental context and experience: poverty, exposure to violence and substance abuse, familial dysfunction and so forth. Youth correctional facilities often exacerbate those environmental triggers, placing youth in isolation from pro-social supports, in a facility operated through hierarchy and control, and with other traumatized and criminally sophisticated youth.

More recently, counties have been engaging in the development of community-based interventions for even the most challenging youth. Wraparound services in a familiar setting, that engages the whole family in the development of pro-social skills, producing positive outcomes for the youth and society.

Yet a new CJCJ Fact Sheet shows that amidst this progress, there is a hidden population of youth who are denied appropriate treatment by virtue of their immigration status. Undocumented immigrants are subject to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer programs that interfere with the very premise of the juvenile court system. Under these programs local law enforcement report suspected undocumented youth upon arrest, whereby ICE may issue a non-binding request to detain that youth for up to 48 hours, excluding weekends and federal holidays, allowing ICE to assume federal custody. Counties that choose to respond to these requests hold youth in detention regardless of their criminal records or rehabilitative needs. These youth face complex challenges to participation in society as a result of their immigration status, which are exacerbated by the unnecessary detention.

The federal government has identified youth as low priority for immigration enforcement, and implemented relief programs such as DACA to facilitate undocumented youth integration, yet they still make requests to detain youth in local detention centers. Additionally, the juvenile justice system has recognized the importance of serving all youth in the least restrictive setting, yet local law enforcement still actively respond to detainer requests. Responding to ICE requests to detain youth longer than is necessary for immediate public safety concerns, defies the purpose of the juvenile justice system and wastes public safety resources. Counties should reconsider their responses to ICE hold requests for youth in accordance with public safety and juvenile justice best practices.

Read CJCJ’s Fact Sheet on The Unnecessary Detention of Undocumented Youth »