Four California counties that together comprise the vast majority of state residents will receive funds to work toward an ambitious goal in the field of juvenile justice: ending the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth.
The efforts will begin in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Imperial counties. The four counties have been selected by state officials to develop new policies and programs aimed at keeping girls out of detention facilities. The Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network will provide financial assistance and technical assistance from the state’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration and the national nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
“The work to transform California’s youth justice system has been ongoing for decades, and we are meeting this movement with a historic investment to reform and redesign how we approach justice for girls and gender-expansive youth,” said Katherine Lucero, director of the state’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration and a former juvenile court judge in Santa Clara County. “With targeted support, these four counties have the potential to become leaders for their peers in California and nationally.”
In the first year of the initiative, the counties will each receive $125,000 to conduct research and create local plans offering homelike alternatives to detention centers. Counties that produce effective plans can go on to receive additional two-year grants of up to $750,000. The funds can be used by probation departments, other government agencies and community-based organizations.
The California initiative emerges from ground-breaking efforts in Santa Clara County, which has been successful in recent years in shifting girls and gender-expansive youth out of detention camps and juvenile halls. After partnering with the New York-based Vera Institute in 2019, the county has reported a 60% drop in girls’ admissions to juvenile detention settings. In Santa Clara County, the average daily population of girls in detention for the year ending September 2022 ranged from a high of four to periods of time without a single girl locked up.
The goal for Imperial, San Diego, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties is similar: provide the most vulnerable girls with community-based support while more closely evaluating whether they pose an actual public safety threat. As many youth as possible will be diverted before they ever reach juvenile hall or even a courtroom. And those who need closer supervision will be placed in family-based settings whenever possible.
Mahsa Jafarian, a program manager for the Ending Girls’ Incarceration initiative at the Vera Institute, said counties across the country have had success in reducing incarceration rates when they “center the girls and gender-expansive youth,” focusing on what led to their arrests and what types of programs and support they need to avoid justice system involvement in the future.
To map out local strategies, the four California counties will analyze data provided by their probation departments, closely evaluating existing patterns of girls’ incarceration. The Vera Institute’s analysis of statewide data shows that in 2021, more than two-thirds of the arrests and nearly half of detention admissions were related to misdemeanor or “status offense” charges, such as running away or violating a curfew.
Of the 4,700 arrests statewide in 2021, girls and gender-expansive youth were admitted to detention facilities 1,400 times. About 67% of the arrests and 46% of the detention admissions were for low-level offenses, according to the researchers.
Arrests of girls make up about 25% of all youth arrests in California, which is consistent with national numbers.
Vera Institute staff and others seeking fundamental justice system reforms say the vast majority of girls who are detained do not pose risks to public safety. They believe their charges should be addressed through supervision outside of secure confinement, which is known to cause lasting harm to young people.
The hazards are particularly pronounced in Los Angeles County, which has drawn scrutiny for inhumane treatment of youth within its juvenile facilities.
On Tuesday, state regulators ordered the closure of Los Angeles County’s two beleaguered juvenile halls, deeming conditions “unsuitable” and ordering the transfer of roughly 300 youth to another, revamped facility in the area. That move came after the May death of a young man in custody at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, who died of an apparent overdose.
“These are counties that have stepped up and are saying, ‘We agree. We want to stop.’”— Katherine Lucero, director of California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration
In recent years, county leaders have urged their staff to find detention alternatives and to decrease the number of girls in probation camps and halls. Nonetheless, the numbers have increased since 2021. In January, 53 Los Angeles County girls and gender-expansive youth were detained. As of April, the number had declined slightly, to 46.
In February, the Board of Supervisors ordered the probation department to renew its focus on decreasing the population of incarcerated girls by submitting regular reports and updated plans for reductions.
Hannah Green, a program manager for the Vera Institute, said the dysfunction in L.A. County detention centers lends even more urgency to decreasing the number of girls in lockups. Green added that the Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network “will provide a vehicle for moving that work forward.”
‘Detaining girls at a disproportionate rate’
Girls of color are disproportionately affected by incarceration in the state and nationwide. Black girls make up only 8% of California’s youth population, but they comprise 25% of the girls admitted to detention centers. The majority of incarcerated girls in the state are Latina.
Overall, California has made progress on reducing the rates of arrest and incarceration of girls. According to a Vera Institute report released last month, between 2012 and 2021, the number of girls’ arrests has declined by 86%, outpacing the decline of overall youth arrests.
And last year, 50 of the 58 counties in California had an average daily population of fewer than five girls in detention facilities. As a result, reformers are pushing for alternatives.
In Imperial County, which straddles the Mexico border, the average daily population of girls in custody for the year ending in September ranged from one to four.
Dan Prince, Imperial County’s chief probation officer, attributes the decline in the detained population to the collaboration between the probation department, prosecutors, public defenders, the county’s office of education and other social service agencies.
He noted as well that a decline in foster youth sent to group homes — plus better trained staff to serve them — has resulted in fewer conflicts that can result in calls to police.
Still, Prince said, “we are detaining girls at a disproportionate rate. Compared to boys, girls end up spending more time in juvenile hall for less-serious offenses.”
What’s more, boys typically have more options to attend diversion programs than girls, said Green of the Vera Institute, despite the fact that “there is a growing body of evidence” such programming is effective for girls and gender-expansive youth.
Interventions involve finding safe ways to remove youth from situations where they are being trafficked or at risk of being trafficked for sex. Too often, girls are sent to juvenile halls out of fear for their safety, Green said, despite the inappropriate nature of lockups for such purposes.
Judge Lucero said the new network will allow judges, prosecutors and other county leaders to closely examine local data and analyze existing programming, allowing them to better determine whether the detention of girls in their communities is truly warranted. Too often, youth are locked up for having run away, or to protect them from danger.
“It’s easy to keep the ball of the status quo going,” Lucero said. “That’s the exciting part of this initiative: These are counties that have stepped up and are saying, ‘We agree. We want to stop.’”