Amid historic reforms to California’s youth justice system, the state’s newly signed budget funnels investments into higher education for young people in lockups, while strengthening oversight of juvenile court schools, educational institutions inside of youth detention facilities.
Due to a budget shortfall, the investment is modest and the funding is among the few spending proposals focused on youth justice that passed in the budget trailer bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on June 30.
But with $80 million in approved spending on alternative schools and the continuation of $15 million for programs to connect incarcerated youth to higher education, the new state budget furthers the goal of improving the lives and futures of incarcerated youth. Key portions of the spending require county probation departments to offer options for secondary education inside juvenile detention facilities. And in an adjustment to California’s school funding formula, county offices of education will receive additional funds to operate alternative and juvenile court schools.
“It’s quite frankly, nationally historic to have an investment of this type for this population that has been overlooked so tremendously,” said Katie Bliss, California higher education coordinator at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center.
The new state budget directs education and probation officials to quickly assess the academic status of young people entering and leaving juvenile detention facilities, and to launch them on a continuing education plan after their release. By November 2025, the budget also requires the state to produce an independent audit of outcomes for youth in juvenile court and alternative schools — institutions for students transitioning home after incarceration or those who have been removed from mainstream schools. Finally, the budget calls for the creation of a workgroup to assess the quality of special education instruction for these students.
California has spent years restructuring its youth justice system, with the goal of shifting toward a more rehabilitative model. On June 30, the same day the budget bill was signed, state officials closed the last remaining state-run youth prisons.
The historic closures are viewed by advocates and juvenile justice experts as long overdue. But they put more pressure on county facilities to provide adequate housing and education for young adults who have committed serious offenses or who struggle with mental and behavioral health issues.
Many local facilities remain ill-equipped for the task. In May, state regulators forced Los Angeles County to shutter two detention centers, citing “unsuitable” conditions that included unsanitary living spaces, lack of programming, drug use and staffing shortages. An 18-year-old detained at one of the facilities died of a drug overdose that same month.
Investigators have also cited insufficient education and recreation opportunities. Formerly incarcerated youth in Los Angeles report spending entire days watching television and playing video games.
The new state budget requires all county probation departments to offer in-person or online college courses in youth detention facilities. This mandate expands upon a $15 million annual investment into community college programs for detained youth included in last year’s budget.
Bliss said 45 community colleges will receive the funding in the coming weeks.
Programs will be modeled on Project Change, which operates out of the College of San Mateo. Courses offered to youth in detention will be transferable to any University of California or California State University campus, with an emphasis on general education courses that will count toward a bachelor’s degree. Dual-enrollment programs will allow incarcerated students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.
“We want to make sure that anything that’s been provided is highly comprehensive, and that it’s set up as a very clear pathway where it’s not just a random assortment of classes,” said Bliss, who founded Project Change in 2015 after spending time in juvenile detention as a teen.
Participating colleges will offer on-campus programming as well, so youth can complete their courses after being released. The schools will partner with local probation agencies to provide college enrollment as a tool for diverting youth from future involvement in the justice system.
A 2019 analysis by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice found that recidivism plummets for incarcerated people who attend college — in turn saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year. A 2010 analysis by the California Legislature found a $2 cost savings for each $1 spent on college programming in detention centers.
In addition to expanding higher education opportunities for young people in the state’s juvenile justice system, California’s $80 million investment will provide added support alongside enhanced oversight.
“This investment will provide county offices of education with additional resources to support the unique staffing and programming needs required to serve this vulnerable population of students, address the volatility of existing resources for juvenile court and other alternative school programs, and address the need for teachers, mental health professionals and other support staff to serve these students,” reads an earlier version of the budget authored by Newsom’s office in May.
Going forward, individualized evaluations of each detained student’s education needs and strengths will be required within two to five days of entering a juvenile facility. The funding requires transition plans be provided within two days of when a student released from detention re-enrolls in a community-based school or college.
The budget agreement also calls for greater oversight, by ordering the California Department of Education to publicly post data from juvenile court schools on its website.
In recent months, legislators and advocates have scrutinized the educational services provided to incarcerated youth in these schools, overseen by county offices of education.
“If we’re going to be incarcerating young people, we want to make sure that they receive the individualized supports and services that they need.”— Megan Stanton-Trehan, Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School
An analysis released in March by the National Center for Youth Law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the East Bay Community Law Center examined the five largest county offices of education in the state — Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara and Riverside Counties. It found a glaring lack of public information about curriculum and standards covering the education owed to detained youth.
Schools run by county offices of education are “largely failing” their students, neglecting to offer both academic and social-emotional support, the Decoding Alternative County Education report reads.
The attorney researchers also found that no juvenile court schools in Kern, Orange and Santa Clara counties offered courses that would be accepted by the state’s university systems. In L.A. County — the state’s largest youth justice system — just 5% of courses taught at such alternative schools would be accepted as sufficient in college applications by the University of California or California State University systems.
Megan Stanton-Trehan, director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School, welcomed new state funding earmarked for juvenile court schools, but said the new investment should be carefully monitored.
“If we’re going to be incarcerating young people, we want to make sure that they receive the individualized supports and services that they need,” Stanton-Trehan said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear idea about how the money is being spent at juvenile court schools.”
The treatment of some groups of youth will be more closely monitored under the new state spending plan, specifically those who have returned to county facilities from youth prisons. They can remain in the system through age 25.
In the future, the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections will be tasked with inspecting youth in “secure-track” treatment facilities, a new placement category designed for youth who have committed the most serious crimes. Previously, the board had only been tasked with overseeing conditions inside juvenile halls, camps and ranches, but did not have the authority to inspect or oversee conditions for the new category of secure-track youth facilities.
The limitations of the board’s authority have been scrutinized of late. In May, it revoked the licenses for the Barry J. Nidorf and Central Juvenile Halls in Los Angeles County, ordering them to close later this month. But some 80 young people were allowed to remain, the youth who had returned from state facilities and whose care and custody was not within the purview of the board.
Now those youth, too, will have the protection of the state agency charged with monitoring conditions of confinement.