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The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed troubling flaws in the grievance process for youth confined in California’s state-run juvenile justice facilities. As the coronavirus tore through the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), leaving youth sickened and isolated, administrators reported a record-low number of youth complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman, suggesting that youth were 1) not properly informed about the grievance process, 2) prevented from accessing it, or 3) unable to trust in the outcome.

2020 was a particularly frightening time to be locked up. Youth at DJJ felt powerless against the spread of COVID-19 as it moved from unit to unit and bed to bed within their cramped facilities. For most of the year, youth were unable to receive in-person visits from loved ones. In occasional calls and letters home, youth shared numerous concerns about DJJ’s handling of the pandemic. These included fears over DJJ’s failure to properly separate sick and healthy youth, staff who refused to wear masks or who discounted youths’ symptoms, major cuts to programs and education, and nearly round-the-clock isolation in cells.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of the Ombudsman is tasked with receiving questions and grievances from people incarcerated in state prisons and youth correctional facilities. They help find a satisfactory remedy by providing information, advice, and recommended next steps. Given the particularly grievous conditions youth faced in 2020, we would expect a sharp rise in complaints to the Ombudsman during this time. Instead, the state recorded a reduction in attempts to contact the office, with an average of just two youth inquiries per month out of a population of more than 700.

Since 2015, DJJ has reported a 64 percent decline in inquiries to the Ombudsman. This period also saw a 4 percent increase in DJJ’s population. In past years, we could have interpreted these opposing trends as a sign of progress. But the 2020 data suggest that youth were left to endure months of isolation and fear without assistance from the Ombudsman, casting doubt on the usefulness of these data.

DJJ’s 2020 report provides two explanations for the latest reduction in Ombudsman inquiries. First, it suggests that family members may be making inquiries in lieu of youth. An increase in these outside inquiries is unsurprising in the midst of a major public health crisis, particularly one in which families have been kept in the dark by DJJ’s administration. Yet this theory also implies, troublingly, that youth were prevented from making inquiries directly. Second, the report cites a decrease in DJJ’s youth population as an explanation for the low complaint count. This seems unlikely in light of the generally flat population trends DJJ has seen in recent years.

The Office of the Ombudsman, like much of DJJ, is not operating with transparency. They are required by law to publicly release data on youths’ Ombudsman inquiries every year. Yet DJJ did not post these reports for either 2019 or 2020. Instead, we had to obtain them through an onerous California Public Records Act request process. In not meeting its legal obligations, DJJ is denying attorneys, families, and community members critical access to complaint records.

With the Ombudsman’s declining involvement in DJJ, there are fewer eyes on the system and fewer outlets for youth to express their concerns over mistreatment. During a time of great anxiety and uncertainty for young people, the data show that youth had nowhere to turn for help. This put family members, attorneys, and nonprofit organizations in the position of doing patchwork advocacy, fighting for youths’ rights one mistreatment at a time.

As the 2020 data show, DJJ’s Ombudsman is largely defunct. The office received just 28 inquiries to its hotline in a year marked by fear, distress, and a too-slow response to DJJ’s COVID-19 outbreaks. The Ombudsman cannot fulfill its critical role of addressing complaints and identifying systemic issues when youth cannot reach them or trust in their ability to help. As the pandemic continues into 2021, DJJ must ensure that the Office of the Ombudsman can perform its basic duties and work transparently to serve young people. 

California is at risk of replicating these mistakes as it embarks on major juvenile justice system reform. DJJ is slated to close in 2023 and, at that time, all confined youth will be held in county-run juvenile facilities. The Governor’s Office is proposing that a newly formed oversight body, the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR), receive a meager $3 million and 19 staff, just three of whom would serve as ombudspeople. This is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of youth across 58 diverse counties. (The current DJJ ombudsman serves just three sites). Moreover, the Governor is recommending that the OYCR ombudspeople be responsive only to youth who would have gone to DJJ, which is a fraction of the youth population in these locked facilities. Without a major boost in OYCR funding and an expansion of its ombudsperson program, the state will leave tens of thousands of youth vulnerable to harm.