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Report: Failure After Farrell: Violence and Inadequate Mental Health Care in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice

SAN FRANCISCO – August 11, 2016 –CJCJ’s new report finds, in California’s state youth corrections system, violence has increased, gang culture is pervasive, and mental health treatment is at times nonexistent

DJJ Bunks

The history of California’s state youth corrections system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), has been mired in violence and abuse. In 2003, after advocates exposed decades of inhumane conditions, DJJ was sued (Farrell v. Kernan) and subject to a court order mandating systemic and cultural reforms in all its facilities. In 2016, Farrell was dismissed. CJCJ’s new report finds that, despite over a decade of monitoring, DJJ continues to be a dangerous and traumatic place, which fails to provide adequate safety or services for California’s justice-involved youth.

  • Rates of violence have increased from 2011 – 2015. Though DJJ’s average daily population decreased by about 30 percent in the last five years, violence has increased. Youth-on-youth injuries have increased by 86 percent, with attacks against a youth victim increasing 40 percent.
  • Populations in restrictive units increased after Farrell’s dismissal. DJJ’s Behavioral Treatment Program (BTP) units allow youth fewer privileges and restrict movement and out-of-room time. These units have historically been used as punishment for aggressive behavior. Data show that, after court oversight of DJJ ended, total BTP populations have more than doubled.
  • Gang prominence at DJJ is still not being addressed. Though at least 75 percent of its population is gang involved, DJJ still has not instituted an evidence-based, gang prevention or intervention program as recommended by juvenile justice and gang experts.
  • DJJ is unable to provide mental health care. The court-appointed mental health expert found that, as recently as fall 2015, youth in the general population of a DJJ facility were receiving no psychological treatment. Due to a consistent lack of licensed mental health staff, DJJ transferred youth to adult prisons to receive necessary licensed treatment.
  • Recidivism rates remain high. In 2010 (the most recent data available), nearly 60 percent of youth released from DJJ returned to state-level custody. Without more recent recidivism data, DJJ cannot verify claims that it has improved public safety or rehabilitated young people, despite yearly costs of over $258,000 per youth.

Read the full report»

For more information about this topic or to schedule an interview with the authors, or individuals with experience on this matter, please contact CJCJ Communications at (415) 6215661121 or cjcjmedia@​cjcj.​org.


The statements below reflect concerns that CJCJ has been receiving with increasing frequency from juvenile justice attorneys and advocates throughout the state.

I recently had an opportunity to visit DJJ on behalf of a client. In 33 years of practice, I have only visited adult facilities in the California Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation. As I understand it, gang violence continues to thrive in the DJJ environment, not surprising since over 70% of the minors are recognized as gang-affiliated. In talking to facility representatives, other minors and their attorneys, and reviewing the literature and statistics, it seems that there has been no real progress being made to decrease the impact of gang culture and violence on the wards confined there. The default position of DJJ consists, apparently, of downplaying the daily incidents of violence, and/​or reclassifying them as mutual combat. They are very loathe to file actual charges against those who assault other wards, even when they involve serious injuries. Prosecution by the local DA’s Office is rarely sought or pursued by the staff. I got a strong sense that the new and improved’ DJJ is focused on increasing its clientele base by impressing local jurisdictions with its state of the art services, downplaying the reality of the daily violence to which the wards are exposed, and ignoring the environment of fear that permeates the institution. Given the strong desire to expand their department, with new construction, more employees, and a larger budget, it is highly unlikely that any real effort will be made to address the fact that DJJ still operates like a Baby Gladiator Camp.” — Amy F. Morton, Criminal Defense Attorney

I have been representing and advocating for minors charged with crimes in the state of California since I began my career over ten years ago. In 2016, I have seen more and more cases where the San Mateo County probation department recommends the Division of Juvenile Justice as a disposition and a judiciary who agrees with them. I have read several studies involving DJJ written by their advocates, their critics, and their own employer, the California Department of Corrections. Recently, I had the opportunity to cross-examine their spokesperson and prosecution expert at a contested disposition hearing on the subject of rehabilitation at DJJ. Much to my disappointment and to the detriment to my client, my questions yielded answers about programming, mental health, violence, gang entrenchment, and recidivism with little or no factual support, statistics, or hands on experience. Instead, I heard a lot of generalizations and guessing rather than data-based opinions or factually supported assessments. Surprisingly, not a single report or conversation with a minor currently incarcerated at DJJ was provided or mentioned by their expert. Unfortunately, I know as much about the day to day operations in place to secure the rehabilitation that DJJ has promised my clients as I did before my research and in-person cross examination of their spokesperson began. Despite the lack of foundation for any evidence of rehabilitation or less violence at DJJ at my client’s contested disposition hearing, he was sentenced to DJJ because he would be rehabilitated there.” Esther Aguayo, Criminal Defense Attorney

Supplemental Farrell timeline & readings

The Farrell v. Cate lawsuit, launched by the Prison Law Office, grew out of the advocacy efforts of many individuals and organizations, including CJCJ, Commonweal, Youth Law Center, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The lawsuit changed the face of juvenile justice in California. For more information, please visit CJCJ’s Juvenile Corrections Reform in California page.

In 2003, the Prison Law Office brought forth a sweeping indictment of the policies and practices of the California Youth Authority (now known as DJF or DJJ), citing widespread neglect and abuse of youth in state custody.

This timeline highlights the primary events in California juvenile justice reform from 1999 to 2015. For Farrell litigation court documents, please visit the Prison Law Office website.

A court-appointed Special Master monitors DJJ’s compliance with the consent decree and through the issuance of periodic progress reports. Read summaries of the Special Master Reports.

Updated Farrell Litigation Timeline (1999 — 2015)

California’s Division of Juvenile Facilities: Nine Years After Farrell