California’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), is slated to permanently close by summer 2023. The DJJ, formerly known as California Youth Authority, has a long history of abusing California’s most vulnerable young people — most recently, in their dangerous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the signing of Senate Bill 823 into law last fall, the care and custody of youth charged with the most serious offenses is transferring back to their counties and no new youth will be committed to state institutions beginning July 1.
This is a critical juncture for juvenile justice reform in California, but there’s a lot of work ahead to ensure that our youth aren’t subjected to the same abuses closer to home.
As counties develop their plans for keeping youth closer to home, community activists are encountering some probation departments leading the charge with little community involvement. These plans can look like young people serving two-, three- or even five-year sentences in their county juvenile halls. County juvenile detention centers are structured like jails, with locked doors and cells, and educational, behavioral health and life skills programming is designed to last less than six months.
Advocates are pushing for counties to reconsider replicating a carceral model and to get creative instead. Their proposed alternatives include home-based models, and partnering with community organizations that already have relationships with young people. Meanwhile, real lives wait in the balance and advocates fear that conservative and even so-called progressive district attorneys may choose to prosecute more youth as adults.
Closing the DJJ shouldn’t mean that youth must either be tried as adults or spend years in juvenile halls. We need to get serious about what it means to heal our youth and communities. Brain science tells us that our brains are still developing until we turn 26 years old and that is further complicated by the complex trauma we are subject to between system involvement and systemic racism. And simple logic tells us that young people cannot be contributing members of their communities while locked in a cell.
I am a Dream Beyond Bars fellow at Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. As formerly incarcerated youth and leaders in our community, we are committed to ensuring that the state closes DJJ the right way. To me, this means that youth never belong in cages, period.
The pushback is connected to the nature of crimes these youth are convicted of and the idea that these serious 707(b) offenses are not worth rehabilitative efforts. Some of these include violent crimes like sexual offenses or murder but it can also include robbery and car theft. But there’s no such thing as a violent youth in a system that separates us from our families, locks us in prison cells and continuously fails to meet our basic needs.
Young people are worthy of dignity, care and a second chance — none of which are present in the current system. Until we address the very real violence of police, child welfare, juvenile probation departments, juvenile halls, group homes and the DJJ itself, nothing is going to change. Incarceration cannot solve the root causes of crime, so it does nothing to keep anybody safe.
The only lesson I learned from my experience with incarceration is that nobody cared about me. This just added fuel to my fire of anger about the child welfare system’s failure to meet my needs and insistence on isolating me from any chance I had at building community. Today, I am a young adult, a graduate of Mills College and UC Berkeley, a proud mother dedicated to breaking cycles and an organizer challenging the systems that tried to break me.
What made the difference for me wasn’t some special trait I was born with. All youth have resiliency muscles — we sometimes just need a little help learning how to flex them. Being connected to supportive individuals who cared about me more than my mistakes and circumstances helped me flex mine. All of our youth deserve that same chance.