CALIFORNIA TO FULLY SHUTTER YOUTH PRISON SYSTEM
After a two-year-long realignment process, California has fully closed its youth prison system, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
With the closure of its last two lockups on June 30, California’s Division of Juvenile Justice will have closed all 11 of its youth penitentiaries, described in the article as “notoriously grim.” The landmark change comes as juvenile crime hovers at near-record lows and state leaders continue a shift from punishment to rehabilitation in criminal justice.
The California Youth Authority operated the state’s youth facilities and served as transitional facilities between county juvenile halls and adult prisons. They are being replaced with a variety of local programs and facilities focused on treatment created by probation departments in each of the state’s 58 counties.
This “realignment” comes with about $200 million a year in total for counties to assume responsibility for juvenile offenders.
However, some justice advocates are nervous given many counties have little experience providing long-term care for young people convicted of serious crimes. In addition, some of the counties that do have the experience, such as LA County, have a poor track record.
“The young people were shut in their cells, banging on doors and screaming,” said Efrat Sharony, who inspected a LA County youth treatment facility nicknamed the “Compound” in February. Sharony is the ombudsperson for a newly created oversight agency, the Office of Youth and Community Restoration.
While such facilities are required by state law to provide “trauma-informed, evidence-based and culturally responsive care,” young people incarcerated at the Compound had contradictory experiences.
“They can call it a secure youth treatment facility,” said Steven Saavedra, 21, who told the LA Times he spent time there this spring. “But it’s not really secure. And there may be some youth, but there’s not any treatment and not even much of a facility.”
Some county youth lockups have also been plagued by overdoses and violence, resulting in the oversight board in May ordering the closure of two of the county’s juvenile halls, said the article.
However, some county programs and facilities have been finding better success in implementing the desired diversion and treatment-focused approach.
Brian Richart, chief probation officer in El Dorado County, recalled that the mentality used to be “to hammer these kids into submission. That was the culture. That’s how you were trained.”
In contrast, he said El Dorado County now operates a Juvenile Treatment Center in South Lake Tahoe where three full-time psychotherapists provide substance abuse treatment and other counseling.
Richart noted that the values of respect and community pervade the facility. “We are doing it in a way that shows care and compassion and I am going to even use the word ‘love,’” he said.
In San Bernardino County, the Apple Valley-based organization Restorative Integration for Successful Engagement provides educational and vocational platforms to 73 youngsters. “It’s a good program and we have a great design, but we need more people to be able to run it the way we want,” said chief probation officer Tracy Reece.
Another community organization working with young offenders is the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which employs older people who have built successful lives following incarceration as “credible messengers” to help guide young people toward work, education and other positive activities.
In Los Angeles, advocates are pushing for a model of juvenile justice that would deemphasize locked wards, even if run by counties, in favor of “homey environments with more academic supports, job opportunities and clear pathways to viable careers,” said the article.
The closing of California’s youth prisons resulted from years of sustained criticism that contested the state’s punitive and unsafe juvenile justice model.
In 2020, a reform law supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering “realignment” triggered the shift in youth detention from Youth Authority prisons to county facilities and probation programs.
Many probation officers initially opposed the law, but have now largely “embraced the concept, saying they can make the shift work,” said the article.
Jasmine Dellafosse, of the California Alliance for Youth & Community Justice, said despite concerns about how the realignment has unfolded, the change should open the door for improvements over the long-term.
“Change is hard. At the end of the day, California made one of the best decisions in making the decision to make [this] a public health issue and say we needed to do something different,” she said. “We will only learn from here going forward.”