With coffers strained by the coronavirus-induced recession and pressure to reform deeply flawed criminal justice systems, California Gov. Gavin Newsom finalized plans Wednesday to shutter the state’s once-notorious youth prison system – keeping hundreds of juvenile offenders in their communities and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to county governments to house young people closer to their homes and families.
The state’s Division of Juvenile Justice will stop admitting most youth offenders beginning on July 1, 2021.
Joined by advocates, legislators and philanthropists in a virtual signing ceremony, Newsom announced the historic move while heralding several new laws expanding rights for youth and people of color caught up in the justice system – including new legal protections for juveniles interrogated by police.
Appearing on Wednesday’s Zoom news conference was Israel Villa, who spent more than four years in the state’s youth prison system in the 1990s, at a time when it held more than 10,000 young people under conditions now considered inhumane. Villa, who now works as deputy director of the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice, said his time there was the “most violent, bloody and dangerous time” out of the 18 years he spent locked up in youth and adult prisons.
“That place created harm to thousands and thousands of kids, not to mention all the families,” Villa said. Calling the governor’s move to shut down the youth prison system “long overdue,” he noted: “This is a leap forward in the right direction, but the work is not done.”
With a budget of about $232 million, the Division of Juvenile Justice now holds roughly 775 youth ages 15 to 25 in three youth prisons and an Amador County fire camp. Young adults in state custody were convicted of serious offenses as juveniles, and 94% are people of color, according to recent analysis by the W. Haywood Burns Institute.
Another 2,250 juvenile offenders are detained in county facilities run by local probation departments, typically those awaiting court hearings and young people convicted of less serious crimes.
The decision to finally close the state’s youth prison system beginning next year concludes a years-long saga over what to do with the increasingly decrepit state-run facilities.
In January 2019, just weeks after arriving in office, Newsom pledged to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.” At the time, he proposed transferring the Division of Juvenile Justice to a newly created department within the Health and Human Services Agency beginning July 1, 2020.
Over the years, as the number of youth offenders held in the state’s prison system has shrunk, the annual price tag per youth has ballooned to more than $300,000. With the coronavirus pandemic placing even greater strain on the state budget, Newsom abandoned his previous plan, announcing in May that he would close the hulking facilities down instead, housing all youth in detention centers overseen by county probation departments.
Under an agreement Newsom reached with legislators this summer, counties will receive an escalating amount of money to deal with these serious offenders over the next four years that will grow to nearly $209 million in the 2024 fiscal year.
The plan also includes the creation of a new state agency housed in the Health and Human Services Agency – the Office of Youth and Community Restoration. That office will be charged with providing consistent standards and support for California’s 58 county juvenile justice systems in providing “trauma-informed” and developmentally appropriate services. The agency will also review plans for how counties spend the new state money but will have little enforcement power.
The Democratic governor said on Wednesday that the state has a lot of work to do to properly implement the juvenile realignment plan.
“We gotta be open to argument and interested in evidence,” Newsom said. “We have to be vigilant in making sure we do this right.”
For advocates like Villa, hope is tempered by concerns over how the plan will be implemented in counties that may be ill-equipped to serve high-needs youth and unable to work closely with community-based organizations.
“We hope that there will actually be more accountability for the first time and that these resources actually help our children directly, not necessarily provide a bunch of salaries and benefits for probation,” Villa said.
Also on Wednesday evening – the final day for the governor to decide on all bills on his desk – Newsom signed a host of related juvenile justice bills that will provide greater protections for young people accused of crimes.
The passage of Senate Bill 203 makes California the first state in the country to guarantee the right to anyone younger than age 18 to consult with an attorney before being interrogated by law enforcement. By ensuring that youth receive an explanation of their Miranda rights – constitutional protections that grant all people “the right to remain silent” and avoid self-incrimination – legislators and advocates hope to prevent false or coerced confessions.
Jerome Dixon, who spent 21 years in prison as a result of a coerced confession at age 17 that came after 25 hours of interrogation by Oakland police, praised the legislation.
“No child should ever be forced to lie about crimes they did not commit because of ignorance or a lack of legal representation,” Dixon said.
Advocates for youth gathering earlier in the day Wednesday also celebrated the governor’s decision to sign Assembly Bill 2542, which prohibits the use of race, ethnicity or national origin to seek or obtain convictions or impose sentences. Under the terms of the Racial Justice Act, it would be easier for defendants in court – including youth in the juvenile justice system – to make the case that racial discrimination plays a part in criminal charges and sentencing. Under the new law, judges will consider whether a person’s race, ethnicity or national origin resulted in harsher treatment.
Zachary Norris, executive director of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said that far too often, the criminal court system has not produced just outcomes for communities of color. But Wednesday, he said he saw signs of positive change.
“This bill gives me hope that one day we will have a justice system that deserves justice in its title,” Norris said.
Newsom has also signed Assembly Bill 901, a bill introduced by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D) that ends the practice of referring youth who are having problems at school to so-called “voluntary probation” programs that can be a pathway into the juvenile justice system.
Another juvenile justice bill, Assembly Bill 1290, will wipe out fines and fees assessed on juvenile offenders and their families prior to 2017, when the state Legislature passed legislation banning fees related to the cost of juvenile detention and supervision.
One juvenile justice bill did not meet the governor’s approval. Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 555, legislation introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D) that would have capped per-minute fees for phone calls in juvenile detention facilities and limited the amount that jail commissaries can charge for certain items. While Newsom expressed concern for the financial burden placed on the families of incarcerated people, the bill could have “the unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational services for people in custody,” according to his veto message.