California is set to shut down its remaining three youth facilities by July 2023, generating concerns over how to handle young offenders, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The reforms were pushed by allegations of youth mistreatment and state budget concerns, the story said. Some incarcerated youth at the Stockton facility have complained of not having fair access to jobs or recreation time. There were also complaints that some correctional officers were favoring gang members over those who wanted to leave the gangs, said the article.
“That place has got a twisted culture and climate,” said one teacher inside the Division of Juvenile Justice(DJJ), who wished to remain anonymous, told the Times. “It’s deep. It’s baked in. So it’s very difficult to change.”
In L.A. County, Safe and Secure Healing Centers facilities will house eligible teenagers that are arrested and convicted. Under the county plan, the small home-like facilities will be partly staffed by the Credible Messengers, a group of formerly incarcerated men and women who have changed their lives.
The centers will be located near the youth’s neighborhoods. They will consist of both open and locked facilities, noted the February 2021 Times story.
“There are far worse things out there for kids than the current system,” said Frankie Guzman, director of the Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law. “Like trying to survive on a (maximum security) Level 4 prison yard.”
Guzman served several years in California’s youth facilities. He is worried that judges will send youth offenders to adult prisons if there is not a proper replacement to the DJJ prison system, according to the article.
The Ventura youth facility and two Stockton institutions are the last youth prisons slated for closure. They will stop intake in July, with some exceptions. The youths will be under the new Department of Youth Development instead of the Probation Department.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit group, release a 2019 report that said that the DJJ staff “abet violence, reinforce racial and ethnic conflicts, and legitimize institutional gangs,” reported the article. In December 2020, the group again criticized the DJJ for its alleged mishandling of the coronavirus spread in its facilities, which infected 13% of the department’s
1,400 staff members and 203 young prisoners, said the article.
It costs the state $268,000 per youth each year compared to the $102,736 for each adult prisoner per year, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget, reported the article.
“The system has invested in the tools of punishment, like pepper spray, rubber bullets, guns, batons, Tasers, tear gas and other lethal weapons that have no place in a care-first model,” said Kenzo Sohoue, formerly incarcerated at a DJJ facility, to the Times.
The state has pledged more than $200 million a year for the “realignment” of the state’s juvenile justice system to the county authorities. The money would pay to house and care for the youths in county facilities. Teens convicted of more serious crimes such as murder will still be sent to a DJJ institution until officials work out a plan to deal with the situation, said the article.
“The community is concerned that going from DJJ to the local juvenile halls or some of the previously closed probation camps is no real improvement at all,” said Julio Marcial, a member of a state committee overseeing the juvenile justice system.
The shifts to local counties also draw some protest from some county officials, who say that the timeline is too short and the financial investment inadequate.
Secure alternatives, rehabilitation over punishment, and confinement and restorative justice has become a major effort by some youth advocates to keep children from being isolated in state facilities, reported the article.
Even newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon has pledged to stop trying some juveniles as adults.
Also, state regulators have banned counties from transferring some difficult youths to out-of-state facilities.
“There still have to be consequences for continued negative behavior,” said Larry Morse II, legislative director of the California District Attorneys Association, to the Times, on prosecutors’ support to improve rehabilitation efforts.
There has been a dramatic drop in youth crimes over the last two decades, and nearly three-quarters of the state’s juvenile hall beds are empty, reported the article.
San Quentin was first to house juveniles in 1941, with a 14-year-old boy, before the DJJ was formed. By 2000, thousands of youth filled at least 11 prisons, according to the article.
A shift to a more therapeutic model is being welcomed by some as research has shown that young people have lower impulse control, greater mood swings and suffer long-term damage from prison isolation, said the article.
“It has been a system designed to punish. And it’s a bad place for young people,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate at Human Rights Watch children’s rights division. “It’s time to move on.”