The plan to dismantle California’s notorious youth prison system, set to begin in earnest in just six weeks, was supposed to include careful oversight of the state’s 58 counties, which will soon be responsible for housing hundreds of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders.
The plan centers on a new Office of Youth and Community Restoration. Separated from the state’s massive corrections bureaucracy, the office will fall under the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, and work “to promote trauma responsive, culturally informed services for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.” The office will also provide ombuds services to handle grievances from incarcerated youth — who are overwhelmingly from Black and brown communities — as well as track and monitor how local governments manage their care and custody.
But as a July 1 date approaches to halt admissions at the soon-to-be shuttered youth prison system, advocates and some lawmakers say the governor’s office has not invested enough, or granted enough authority to the incoming overseers at the Office of Youth and Community Restoration.
“Youth ensnared in our juvenile court processes will continue to be harmed by our systems because the governor is abdicating his responsibility to invest in their well-being,” said Dominique Nong, director of youth justice policy for Children’s Defense Fund – California. “Transferring the care of our young people to counties does not relieve the state of its obligation to oversee county systems and hold them accountable to California’s youth and their families.”
In his revised budget released earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) doubled the investment in the new youth justice oversight office — increasing funding from $3.4 million to $7.6 million. Housed in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the new agency is tasked with overseeing statewide reforms, collecting data and providing technical assistance, in addition to providing a statewide ombudsperson’s office.
But critics of the governor’s financial commitment to date say the office is too poorly funded to have any teeth in overseeing the hundreds of youth offenders and the hundreds of millions currently being spent on them. They say more than four times the amount being proposed for the Office of Youth and Community Restoration is what’s actually needed, or roughly $31 million, in addition to more staff with greater investigative powers.
The limited investment is all the more stark, skeptics say, given the governor’s ambitious spending plan on other state initiatives. Following a flood of unexpected tax revenue as the pandemic recedes, Newsom’s revised budget includes billions of dollars for universal transitional kindergarten, a tax rebate for middle-class residents, an upgraded power grid, road repairs and better access to broadband internet.
“There is a huge need for checks and balances,” said Miguel Garcia, an advocacy coordinator with the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “Just because our state prisons are closing down, that doesn’t mean counties should each just go ahead and have a free-for-all, deciding how they want to serve young people.”
In a letter to legislators in March, a coalition of advocacy groups called funds allocated for the Office of Youth and Community Restoration “irresponsible,” when compared to the $15.3 million invested in the California Horse Racing Board and the $20.7 million in the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
Beginning in July, the three youth prisons now run by the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice will stop accepting new arrivals, although the fire camp in Amador County will remain open. The Division of Juvenile Justice, currently funded at $232 million a year, will completely shut down by 2023. Instead, counties will assume responsibility for the most serious youth offenders from their regions found to have committed violent crimes like murder, rape and assault — housing them in locally run juvenile halls and camps. Under sentencing guidelines finalized earlier this month, they can remain in those facilities in most cases until age 25.
The population heading back to locally-run institutions is sizable: For example, in 2019, 345 teens were sent from counties to Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. The racial disparities in this population are overwhelming. Currently, 93% of those held in California’s youth prisons are young people of color, and Black youth are 31 times more likely than white peers to be incarcerated, according to tracking by the W. Haywood Burns Institute.
Oversight of these young people will soon be the responsibility of the new state ombudsperson's office, the first in California to address systemic issues and oversee grievances from one centralized office.
Dre Melgoza, 21, an organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, said local authorities monitoring themselves has not worked. Three years ago, she was detained at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, one of three state prison facilities scheduled to be shut down.
Melgoza said staff at the prison would conduct strip searches nearly every day when teens and young women returned to their units. And when young people would anger guards, they would face retribution, she added, like staff barring them from spending time outside their cells.
There was little recourse. “If we wrote a grievance, they tell everybody we're a snitch,” she said. “There needs to be a different way, where we don't have to face payback.”
Some legislators and youth justice experts are concerned that at current funding levels, the new ombudsperson and seven staff who are currently budgeted for will not be able to properly serve the 90 juvenile detention facilities up and down California. In contrast, a similar office in Texas monitoring the same number of detention centers has 13 staff members.
At a state budget hearing last week, Stephanie Welch, deputy secretary of behavioral health at the California Health and Human Services, said the current plan for seven staff members will suffice. She also said the state can draw on new funding for consultants to help counties be “highly nimble and responsive” to issues that arise at the local level.
“If we're seeing consistent things that need to be resolved, we have the ability to procure expertise,” Welch said.
Critics point to other problems, however, noting that the current structure of the office lacks the enforcement power of similar state offices, such as the ombudspersons overseeing the foster care system and long-term care facilities for seniors. As currently proposed, for example, the Office of Youth and Community Restoration ombudsperson would not have the ability to access copies of young peoples’ records when complaints are made about conditions of confinement.
These issues have left some lawmakers concerned about weaknesses in the state’s shift toward a county-run system. At a legislative hearing in March, Assembly member Mark Stone (D) said he was pleased to see the state follow a new path with the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, shifting the focus away from the punitive corrections approach and toward human services.
But with counties now responsible for all of the state's most serious offenders, the state must not completely abdicate its responsibility, Stone added, “washing their hands” of how these young people are served at the local level.
“That would be a real tragedy because then we're going to see outcomes significantly different over time, depending where a child is,” Stone said. “And that is something we absolutely have to avoid. Because if that happens, then this whole exercise will have been a failure.”