In September 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed monumental legislation to close California’s notorious youth prison system, or Division of Juvenile Justice, shifting care and custody of these youth to counties. Advocates led by formerly incarcerated youth and impacted families fought for Senate Bill 823 with the intent to shift funding and focus to restorative justice and community-based programming.
A key piece of the legislation is the creation of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR), which is responsible for monitoring the treatment of all youth in the state’s juvenile justice system, as well as planning and overseeing support for county spending on youth in their custody and care. This includes thousands of youth who are referred to the state’s justice system every year.
While the realignment has led to a swollen budget of nearly $300 million for DJJ, the proposed spending to create the OYCR is a mere $3 million. Texas, a state with a similar number of facilities, budgets 13 full-time positions in their comparable office, while the current proposal in California only budgets for three. To put this into perspective, the California Horse Racing Board is assigned $15 million with 58 full time staff. Young people are certainly worthy of investment, too.
To highlight why proper funding for this office is critical to the implementation of SB 823, I spoke with advocates who played a role in passing the original legislation and are fighting for OYCR’s development.
The decision to close California’s state youth prison system was a good one. The recognition in SB 823 that justice-involved youth should be “closer to their families and communities and receive age-appropriate treatment” is welcome. But the early indications are that counties are not yet prepared to do what is called for in this transformational legislation: use evidence-based practices, eliminate racial and ethnic disparities and reduce the use of incarceration by utilizing community-based interventions. In fact, a survey by the Board of State and Community Corrections reveals that many counties plan to serve the “realigned” youth population by simply locking them up in existing juvenile halls. The Office of Youth and Community Restoration will play a critically important role in helping counties to understand how to shift their systems away from such punitive, correctional models and assuring that communities play a larger role in developing and providing the continuum of care. It is essential that the new office be staffed with the very best and most knowledgeable people to provide leadership to the field, and develop much-needed data and research systems aimed at system improvement. The office must also be properly staffed to assure that young people are not harmed and that public dollars are spent in the manner intended by SB 823.
–Sue Burrell, policy director, Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
I was just reading a report about Assembly Bill 109 and the billions of dollars that are unaccounted for. This is very important to the conversation of why OYCR is needed because throughout history in California there has never been a mechanism for transparency, accountability and oversight where the youth justice system is concerned. Unfortunately, I know from personal experiences the violations and abuses. And I know that this continues to this day because I work with youth coming home who continue to be subjected to abuse by the same system.
It is absolutely critical that OYCR is resourced and staffed including the ombuds office in order to document and investigate these stories and experiences to ensure youth do not continue to be harmed into the future.
Unfortunately, it seems like the scope is being minimized and I personally feel it is an attempt to maintain the status quo. It seems like probation would like to maintain monopoly over youth justice funds and continue to operate without transparency, accountability and oversight.
You know it was a challenge to pass SB 823 to close DJJ the right way. SB 823 is only as important as it is implemented to me, to our children who are incarcerated and to our state.
-Israel Villa, deputy director at the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice
SB 823 is a landmark piece of legislation that ends California’s draconian youth prison system, and calls for community-based and public-health solutions that support the positive youth development of our justice-involved youth. A key aspect of the law is the establishment of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR), whose role is to provide adequate oversight and support to our 58 counties as they rush to comply with the law.
Without a well-resourced OYCR, that is able to swiftly investigate complaints from our youth and families, monitor juvenile justice actors toward fidelity to the law, provide communities with research and training on youth development best practices and give guidance to lawmakers, we run the risk of invalidating the spirit and intent of the law, while harming our most vulnerable and highest-needs youth.
–Vamsey Palagummi, managing director, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice
This proposal creates a shell of an agency. The California Horse Racing Board has nearly five times the amount of funding proposed for OYCR — an agency responsible for the safety and treatment of thousands of our children and youth.
Only two staff are assigned to resolve concerns from incarcerated youth, families and staff across California. In 2019, more than 16,000 youth were securely detained inside 90 facilities that are staffed by thousands of employees.
OYCR is fundamental to ensure the hundreds of millions of dollars the state is investing is producing positive outcomes. Yet only three staff are meant to assist counties to develop spending plans and review them. The number of proposed staff positions is far below comparable oversight agencies in California and nationwide. More staff and more resources to equip these staff to perform their jobs is essential to ensure realignment does not harm, and in fact advances, the health and well-being of California’s children and communities.*
–Dominique D. Nong, director of Youth Justice Policy Children’s Defense Fund – California
*This is an abridged version of the testimony provided during a California Assembly budget hearing on March 16, 2021.
Read more coverage of the closure of California's youth prisons and the development of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration from The Imprint’s Senior Reporter Jeremy Loudenback.