Legal advocates for California’s juvenile justice-involved youth have gone to court in Fresno County to ensure robust public participation in developing the county’s plan for assuming jurisdiction over youth who are currently in state-run juvenile lockups.
Under a 2020 state law that will close California’s few remaining state-run juvenile facilities and transfer the incarcerated youth to their home counties, to be near families and receive healing-oriented, community-based services, all counties are preparing for the realignment.
Fresno County is reportedly in line for nearly $14 million in state funds over the next three years as the realignment takes place.
But according to the Fresno-based nonprofit Center for Leadership, Equity, and Research (CLEAR), Fresno County and its juvenile justice planning bodies have repeatedly frozen the public out in violation of the state’s open government and public meeting law, known as the Brown Act. Suing on CLEAR’s behalf are the law firms Baker McKenzie and the Oakland-based Youth Law Center.
Among other alleged Brown Act violations, the lawsuit complains that the county’s juvenile justice coordinating council and its realignment subcommittee created the plan without proper notice to the public on the agenda that it was up for possible adoption, depriving the public of its legal right to provide input.
“Like the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, the Realignment Subcommittee has a pattern of past violations, having met at least eleven times in non-public meetings that were wholesale violations of the Brown Act,” the complaint states.
“CLEAR’s goal is to empower social justice leaders to challenge inequities and advocate on behalf of our diverse society,” said Ken Magdaleno, CLEAR founder and executive director, in a statement. “As long as Fresno County’s juvenile justice planning is conducted behind closed doors, our community members will believe that their participation is unwelcome and unimportant. By bringing this case, we hope to open up the planning process and make sure that community voices can be heard.”
In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature agreed on a plan to phase out the state’s three youth prisons. In July, the three Division of Juvenile Justice facilities stopped accepting new commitments from counties; they will completely shut down in June 2023.
That followed decades of efforts by advocates for youth to provide more humane conditions in the state’s youth prison system. In the mid-1990s, about 10,000 young people were locked up in state facilities, where they faced harsh conditions like 23-hour confinement and rampant abuse by staff.
Under Senate Bill 823, counties have begun accepting a growing number of youth in local juvenile detention facilities, along with funding that will climb to $209 million by 2023-24.
Local governments are also charged with providing developmentally appropriate rehabilitative services to these young people to prevent future involvement with the justice system. Now, counties have until the end of the year to create detailed plans about programs, placements, services, supervision and reentry strategies.
To complete the plans, every county must convene a new Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council subcommittee that has to include community members with knowledge about the juvenile justice system or those with lived experience in it.
Some advocates feel those voices have not been adequately heard in Fresno County’s planning process.
“We feel it’s critical that county processes allow for participation by directly impacted youth, families and community members to have a chance at realizing the intended vision of a new public health approach that supports positive youth development, builds the capacity of a continuum of community-based interventions, and actually reduces crime by youth,” said Youth Law Center Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez in a statement.
Fresno County has denied any Brown Act violations to date and says the plaintiffs misunderstand the county’s plans for involving the public.
“While not actually required by the enacting statutes, Fresno County does intend to hold several more Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council subcommittee meetings prior to the January 1, 2022 deadline for the final adoption of the Juvenile Justice Realignment Plan with full Brown Act noticing and procedures in place,” county spokeswoman Sonja Dosti said in an email to the Fresno Bee.