This article is part of “The Darkest Part of the Tunnel,” a series on the dismantling of youth prisons in California. See the entire series here.
Strings of fairy lights adorning fenced-in exercise yards. Bright new paint obscuring cinder block walls. “Cozy reading nooks” and starry night ceiling panels. Across California, officials are doing their best to soften the bleak interiors of county juvenile detention centers with such features and more: comfortable sofas, new gaming consoles, and scent-infused “de-escalation rooms.” Sound baffles are being installed to obscure the clanging of metal doors.
This is the new look of juvenile justice in California, as the once-massive network of state-run youth prisons lumbers toward closure in June. Already, the first rounds of young people ages 14 to 24 who committed serious offenses as minors are being returned to their home counties, where many will spend years in county juvenile detention facilities built for short-term pretrial stays.
Under a 2020 state law requiring the shift from the state to the counties, these young people are meant to be housed in “Secure Youth Treatment Facilities” that are “evidence-based, promising, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive.” They must also address young people’s “mental and emotional health, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and any disabilities or special needs” in a therapeutic environment.
But there is a catch. Until new state standards are established, these settings must comply with existing regulations — and what those regulations describe is nothing more than a traditional detention facility.
An Imprint review of plans submitted to the state by all 58 counties revealed that nearly every county in California is planning to send young people returning from state youth prisons straight to juvenile hall, which the counties are consistently using as their “Secure Youth Treatment Facilities.” With their cells and tiers, bars, and heavy metal doors, these institutions bear little resemblance to the vision of home-like, therapeutic centers outlined in Senate Bill 823 and a subsequent bill Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law last year.
“I don’t think anybody contemplated that kids would be returned to counties only to be put in a detention facility,” said Katherine Lucero, a former longtime Santa Clara County juvenile court judge appointed to lead the state Office of Youth and Community Restoration. The new state agency is tasked with overseeing the transition from the state to the counties.
“When I was on the bench, and we were looking at using our juvenile hall as the Secure Youth Treatment Facility, I was not happy — I don’t think a juvenile detention facility is a place to raise kids,” Lucero said. “Because basically, that’s what’s happening, right? We’re saying that a 14-year-old may be committed for three or four years, maybe five.”
All roads lead to juvenile hall
Gov. Newsom set the current shift in motion two years ago when, faced with a projected $54 billion budget shortfall, he announced the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) would gradually shut down and funding would be shifted to local governments. Intakes at state youth prisons have been halted since June 2021, and the complete closure is 10 months away.
Counties have been given hundreds of millions of dollars for the shift, including an additional $100 million in the most recent state budget. Now, they are scrambling to refurbish their juvenile halls to accommodate older youth for long periods of time. In many parts of the state, this has simply amounted to adding a therapeutic veneer.
Santa Barbara County, for example, will provide those in its custody — who may be as old as 24 under the new law — with an “Excellent Behavior Card,” which staff punch each time they witness a young person doing well. “Once the youth has filled their card, the youth is allowed to select a ‘Golden Egg’ from the Treasure Chest. Each golden egg contains a prize ranging from a special snack, an extra telephone call, or a meal with administration.” Visits with siblings and grandparents can also be “earned” via progress through a behavior modification program.
Stanislaus County plans to convert office space into a calming room, without losing sight of its punitive mission: “The department will be careful to create the room where youth will be soothed by their surroundings, but also not make it so attractive that youth purposely want to enter it.”
Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the San Francisco-based Young Women’s Freedom Center, describes these efforts to soften carceral institutions as “painting the walls periwinkle.” But even those efforts appear to be a best-case scenario as far as youth and their advocates are concerned.
While the county plans consistently reference the intent to create “homelike” environments, planned upgrades include razor wire, surveillance cameras, body scanners, padded “safety rooms,” and even the renovation of an abandoned Secure Housing Unit — the designation for a “SHU,” or maximum security unit generally used for discipline in the highest-level adult prisons.
Most plans for young people returning from state custody downplay or obscure the challenge of turning a juvenile hall into a therapeutic environment, but the Alameda County plan stands out for its frank acknowledgement of how inappropriate such settings are for this population.
“The prison-like facilities that so many believed we required have been proven unnecessary and harmful,” wrote members of the committee that crafted the plan. Now, the probation department “recognizes that it is not in the youth’s best interest to remain in this type of secure setting for a long period of time.” Committee members acknowledged that the county’s juvenile hall “was not built with long-term commitments in mind.”
The Alameda County plan lays out a range of potential alternatives, including entirely closing down the juvenile hall and establishing “a complete continuum of services and housing options to meet the needs of young people.”
Laura Dixon, a spokesperson for the Chief Probation Officers of California, reiterated long held concerns by her members that they had not been given enough time or resources to respond to “the decentralization” of the state’s justice system and to find ways to house youth “with the highest needs and who have committed significant crimes.”
But she said the county plans, “and visions contained in the plans,” demonstrate probation departments’ best efforts to enhance local programs and services that focus on wellness and rehabilitation.
“It’s easy to pass a law, the hard work begins when implementing that law,” Dixon said in a statement. Nonetheless, she added: “We expect to overcome the challenges before us because we cannot afford to let our youth or our communities down.”
Some counties have put plans for alternative settings in place but have been unable to fulfill them.
Los Angeles County, the state’s largest, estimates it will have 170 young adults on the “secure track” by next year, and the county has long planned to use a detention camp in the Malibu foothills to house them. But labor conflicts with the county’s three probation unions have left the youth detained at an aging Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, described by state investigators as “unsuitable for the confinement of minors.”
Since January 2021, L.A. County has been operating under a consent decree with the state, after the California attorney general’s office found inhumane conditions at two local juvenile halls. Among the indignities, investigators described youth living in cells without toilets who were forced to urinate into milk cartons because staff shortages meant no one came to let them out of their cells.
County Supervisor Holly Mitchell recently released a statement describing living conditions at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall as “a dangerously unhealthy and unsafe climate for the young people and staff.” Mitchell, a former state lawmaker, went on to state: “From the repressive layout of the compound to the lack of on-site resources and antiquated living conditions, it continues to be painfully clear that this facility is in a deep state of crisis.”
Even those counties making good-faith efforts to add warm touches to facilities built as jails may be trying to achieve the impossible, observers say: creating environments conducive to healing inside institutions that are intrinsically traumatizing.
A review by the San Francisco-based Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and the Youth Law Center found that county juvenile halls “operate much like jails, relying on hardware and control measures that are antithetical to developmentally appropriate services for youth. They separate youth from the support of their families and communities and often fail to provide the very services upon which commitment is premised.”
Meanwhile, incarcerating youth has not proven to enhance public safety, according to recidivism studies. California state data show that within three years of release from a Division of Juvenile Justice facility, between 74% and 82% of youth offenders have been arrested again.
Juvenile halls vary from county to county, but typically they feature rows of reinforced steel doors that lock from the outside. Narrow windows allow youth to peer into linoleum-floored dayrooms where institutional furniture is bolted to the floor. Behind these locked doors are tiny cinder block cells where young people sleep atop cement blocks or bunks, with bare metal toilets and a metal desk, also bolted to the wall.
Inside, life is strictly regimented. Young people are allowed out of their cells to exercise, attend school and other programs, but otherwise have little freedom of movement. They line up as they move from cell to class to meals and back again. Visits with family are often limited to a few hours a week.
Moving youth from state-run institutions to county juvenile halls “is not a win to me,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center.
“Children who are involved in systems need the same things that every single child needs. They need somebody who is fully in love with them and is dreaming about their future and is doing whatever possible to try to create the best and brightest future for them,” said Rodriguez, a former foster youth who spent her adolescence in group homes. “We haven’t addressed that need at all in any of our reforms.”
Once a zealous jailer
There is no downplaying the significance of the closure of California’s sprawling youth prison system — once so rife with violent and abusive conditions that it remained under a court-ordered consent decree for more than a decade. Guards seeking entertainment incited so-called “Friday night fights” among youth. Order was maintained with solitary confinement, vicious dogs and pepper spray. On some units, school was held in cages the shape and size of telephone booths and set in a ring.
But the system that once held more than 10,000 teens and young adults is now down to 600. With youth crime on a steady decline for decades and local authorities seeking alternatives to detention for those who do break the law, once-overcrowded county juvenile detention centers are also emptying out. On average statewide, juvenile halls are now operating at less than a quarter of their capacity, according to a Youth Law Center analysis of state data.
Once among the country’s most zealous youth jailers, California is on track to become the second state after tiny Vermont to shut down its entire state-run youth prison system. The move is part of a larger trend. The number of young people confined nationwide has declined by 70% since its 1995 peak, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But California offers the first large-scale experiment in completely eliminating the state-run youth prison model.
“Even though counties are planning to use their facilities for long-term confinement, the number of kids tried as adults and/or confined in any kind of juvenile facility has absolutely plummeted over time,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a senior fellow at the Justice Lab at Columbia University, in an email. Schiraldi, who spearheaded the closure of some youth prisons in Washington, D.C., and New York, added: “While not a total abolition, and while certainly not perfect, I think it’s fair to see the DJJ closure as one more step in a massive decline in the number of kids locked up in either state or local facilities.”
But there are other lessons to be learned here as well, about what can go wrong when there is not careful planning in advance of such a move.
Too few resources
Frankie Guzman, an attorney and senior director of the Youth Justice Initiative at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, spent six years behind bars in the California state youth prison system, with stops in county detention along the way. When he learned that Newsom had abruptly cut the state youth prisons out of the budget, “I was sick to my stomach,” Guzman said.
“Local probation departments don’t have the facilities, the infrastructure, the resources, the culture, or the human capacity to deal with these young people in a humane way,” Guzman said. “They closed DJJ because of money and politics, not, as Gavin Newsom said, because kids do better closer to home. A kid isn’t going to do better just by virtue of the fact that you put them in a dungeon closer to home.”
Guzman is worried that young people will be even worse off in juvenile halls than they were in state facilities, which were forced to improve by decades of litigation and public pressure.
“DJJ at least has a big facility with a dedicated school area, recreation, a big field,” said Guzman. “You can touch grass, you can see a night sky. I always felt better treated at DJJ than in juvenile hall.”
Yet Judge Lucero, who has toured several of the new Secure Youth Treatment Facilities, saw encouraging signs that less-restrictive settings are now being considered in some counties. Orange County, for instance, has received approval to build transitional housing on its 100-acre site, where young people will be able to leave during the day to work or attend college. Fresno has a four-bedroom house on the same property as its juvenile hall, and is working on plans for a “step-down” program that would be staffed by employees of a community-based organization, rather than the probation department.
Judge Lucero also sees progress in the fact that young people will be held closer to their homes and relatives.
“The idea was to get kids out of large congregate care facilities and closer to their homes,” she said. “That is definitely happening. And what I do know from talking to the kids at the facilities already is that they’re really glad that their families can visit them; that they don’t have to travel miles and miles.”
In one facility, she said, “I literally felt like I walked into a room that I had seen when I first took my kid to college. There was a huge comforter, a huge mattress, a rug on the floor, a desk.” In Fresno, she saw a therapeutic labyrinth garden, where youth could go to deal with difficult emotions, rather than being “scolded” by staff.
“I’m not saying this is going to solve all the problems, no,” she said. “But if we can show youth that we care about them while we have to have them there, that is so important.”
Reporter Jeremy Loudenback and news researcher Noah Budnitz contributed to this report.