California Starts Phase-Out of Most State Juvenile Prisons, but Loophole Allows Two to Remain Open
However, the deal contained a loophole: two state-operated facilities in San Joaquin and Ventura counties will remain open for youth who are at risk of being prosecuted as adults.
Two decades ago, around 10,000 youth ages 12 to 25 were confined in state facilities. But juvenile crime has since plummeted, with DJS facilities now holding about 775 youthful offenders (and county facilities confining another 2,250). The cost of housing offenders in the DJJ had skyrocketed to more than $300,000 per person annually.
The DJJ also had a dismal performance record. A 2017 evaluation reported that 75% of youth discharged were rearrested within three years of release. The report reflected a similar finding made in 2002. Generations of people who had been confined in the DJJ’s facilities spoke at a 2020 meeting in Salinas, stating that when they were released they were “ill-prepared for life outside, not knowing how to open a bank account or find a job,” The Imprint reported. Assemblyman Phil Ting said of the new plan, “This is about providing some sunshine on a system that is not working.”
The new program established an Office of Youth and Community Restoration (“OYCR”) as part of California’s Health and Human Services Agency instead of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The OYCR will be charged with the task of providing consistent standards and greater accountability for California’s 58 county juvenile justice systems. The OYCR is to “promote trauma responsive, culturally informed services” and will include the state’s first-ever ombudsman for youth justice to investigate complaints about harmful conditions or practices at juvenile facilities in California.
The new plan has faced much opposition and criticism. Assemblyman Jim Cooper said “this entire program is set up for failure for most of the counties.” Of primary concern is the challenge of how small, rural counties will have constitutionally adequate structures and programming to handle youth offenders.
Further, young people with mental health problems who had committed sex offenses or who had a history of involvement with violent gangs were previously sent to the DJJ because county facilities are not equipped to house them. But a new Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant will give counties $40 million in 2021 to make improvements, and that amount is set to jump to almost $209 million in the 2024 fiscal year.
Edgar Ibarra, a student of the University of California, Davis (who was also incarcerated in DJJ’s facilities from 2008 to 2012), said, “We can’t afford to mess this up. We need to set these guys up for success so they don’t have to go back to prison or get locked up again like we did.”
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