The vision for shutting down California’s sprawling network of youth prisons that once held more than 10,000 young people is often repeated by the Democratic governor in the nation’s most populous state: the “end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it.”
Legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two years ago will close California’s remote Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to county governments to create a continuum of local alternatives. Under the state’s new plan, rather than spending their young impressionable years locked in hulking human warehouses rife with violence and institutional abuse, young people convicted of the most serious offenses would
But embedded in budget conversations now underway in Sacramento is the reality of where this once-lofty vision appears to be headed when the last of the state’s youth prisons shut down next year: a slew of beefed-up local juvenile halls.
As part of his 2022-23 budget, Newsom proposed an additional one-time $100 million to be spent exclusively on county juvenile detention facilities.
Laura Dixon, spokesperson for the Chief Probation Officers of California, said the money will help counties modernize their juvenile halls so they can become “therapeutic, youth-centered, trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate rehabilitative environments for youth.” Possible uses for the funds, she said, could include creating more “home-like” spaces within the lockups and adding spaces for treatment, job training, education and family visits.
But advocates for youth say the millions of dollars Newsom wants spent on juvenile halls underscores long-held concerns: They foresee young people convicted of serious offenses — for whom proper treatment is essential to their future lives and to public safety — winding up shuttled from scandal-ridden state facilities to lengthy terms in juvenile halls that were designed for brief pretrial stays.
“It seems extremely unlikely that these places — many of which have barbed wire fences, prison-like observation stations, tiny jail-like windows, metal toilets and mirrors, and uniformed staff wearing many pounds of repressive equipment on their belt — can become the health-oriented, positive youth development settings,” said Sue Burrell, policy director at the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization.
Advocates say public money would be better spent on less restrictive “step-down” programs that allow young people to transition safely from juvenile halls to less prison-like environments, and on community-based services that provide youth with ongoing support for jobs, education and mental health in their own communities.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has also recommended against the $100 million in funding because “it is not clear why additional funding is necessary,” according to a Jan. 27 report. Two-thirds of California counties will receive fewer than 10 youth returning from state custody, the office found, making the county-level impact of the DJJ closure “minimal.”
“This budget proposal incentivizes more facilities, more beds, and requires no accountability,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Youth Law Center. “The intention of the DJJ closure was to provide rehabilitative and restorative justice.” But that, she added, “involves investing in youth, the families that love them, and their communities.”
If the state funnels more money into revamped local detention facilities, Rodriguez said, “then we are investing again in ineffective and harmful techniques.”
‘Near-empty monuments’ to a blunder
The number of teenagers who have committed serious crimes has been in steady decline in California for decades. This has left the state’s youth prisons and county juvenile halls “near-empty monuments to a costly miscalculation — a mistake compounded each year as the number of young offenders plummeted,” a San Francisco Chronicle report concluded in 2019.
State facilities once locked teens in their cells for 23 hours a day and schooled them in telephone-booth-sized cages. But following years of lawsuits and persistent protest over conditions and costs that have reached more than $300,000 a year per young person, numbers have dwindled from the more than 10,000 incarcerated in the 1990s. The system’s nine youth prisons, two reception centers and four state-run camps are down to housing roughly 600 in three remaining facilities.
Under concerted pressure from advocates for incarcerated youth, the state Senate recently proposed adding a handful of conditions and incentives to what they describe as the governor’s no-strings-attached funding for county juvenile halls.
The Senate had proposed spending $40 million of the $100 million to add spaces for rehabilitative programming. Senators also want priority given to counties that “propose using a placement other than juvenile hall as their secure youth treatment facility.”
A final agreement with the governor’s office could take weeks.
Governor’s bold promises
Since taking office as governor three years ago, Newsom has used the budget process as an opportunity to make bold statements about transforming juvenile justice.
“Instead of putting kids behind bars, we should be working to prevent them from getting there in the first place,” he tweeted in 2019, when he unveiled a budget that proposed moving the state’s youth justice system from its home within the larger adult-focused Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to a new department under the youth and family-centered Health and Human Services Agency.
The following year, he embedded an even more surprising, and successful, move in his budget, which landed amid a pandemic-driven $54 billion budget shortfall: the elimination of the Division of Juvenile Justice altogether. In September 2020, Newsom signed Senate Bill 823, which mandates a phased closure of DJJ and empties its three remaining youth prisons of young people ages 15 to 25. One facility, a fire camp in Amador County, will remain open.
The bill, which shifts responsibility for youth convicted of serious offenses from the state to the counties, provides $118,339,000 to counties in the 2022-23 fiscal year and increases the annual allocation to $208,800,000 in 2024-25 and beyond.
After SB 823 passed, the state also provided counties with $9.6 million in one-time grants to help them prepare to receive the new population of youth who had previously been sent to the state, money that could be used for upgrading local juvenile detention facilities to make them more secure.
This year, California finds itself with a $97 billion budget surplus, following a surprisingly strong economic recovery from the pandemic and burgeoning wealth gain among the state’s highest earners. Buried within this year’s spending plan, which has reached $300 billion, is the extra $100 million to upgrade county juvenile detention facilities — a striking contrast, advocates say, to the governor’s previous promises to rethink entirely how youthful offenders are housed and treated in California.
As the July 1 deadline for a final budget nears, attorney Burrell said, it looks clear that “young people are going to remain locked in cells for a good part of the day, will have substandard educational services, will have no opportunities to have normal friendships and activities, and will have extremely limited opportunities to connect with family and other supportive people.”
Burrell has seen young people repeatedly fall into the gap between rhetoric and reality during the three decades she has been involved with efforts to reform California’s youth justice system.
“The governor and the Legislature have said that they want to chart a new direction in youth justice,” she said. “But unfortunately, the closure of DJJ did not come with a planning process. It just came with a bunch of money for the counties, and this $100 million will be on top of that.”
Israel Villa, deputy director of the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, is another vocal critic of the $100 million spending plan. Villa spent several years in and out of juvenile hall in his hometown of Salinas, and later spent years locked up in the state system once known as the California Youth Authority.
“I’m very familiar with the system and its failed approach,” Villa said. “Literally every single layer of this racist punishment system, I’ve seen it.”
Villa acknowledged that $100 million is not a huge amount in the scope of corrections spending in California. But it is money that the alliance of 40 community groups he now coordinates could use instead for services and supports that would improve the lives of the state’s vulnerable youth.
The problem with Newsom’s plan, he said, is “the continued insanity of making the same investments and expecting different results. It’s not taking us anywhere near the direction of ending youth incarceration. It’s not helping our kids. It didn’t help me.”