In Surprise Move, Newsom Calls for an End to California’s Youth Prison System

Yalmar Pastora, left and Kevin Lopez discuss their project during Johanna Boss High School’s exhibition day at O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in October 2019. Photo: Don Chaddock, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

With coronavirus pummeling Californians’ health and economy like a modern day plague, few expected a line item buried in an otherwise deficit-driven budget that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced Thursday: After decades of the state running what was once the country’s most vast and notorious youth prison system, the end could be near for the Division of Juvenile Justice.

The governor’s proposal would close the last three youth prisons and a fire camp run by the state’s juvenile justice system, halting a more than 100-year tradition of incarcerating California’s youngest offenders at remote warehouse-like facilities. Instead, juvenile offenders who have committed the most serious and violent crimes would remain at county-run detention facilities overseen by local probation departments.

If the governor’s plan is approved by the state legislature, it would end the brutal legacy of a youth prison system in California that once housed as many as 10,000 youth and teens. In the past, young people were locked in cages for school and recreation, and held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

The state institutions were nothing more than a dumping ground,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “We’re elated.”

Macallair and other youth advocates and juvenile justice experts have spent decades fighting to end conditions at California youth prisons long known for releasing young adults back to their communities more angry and violent than when they arrived. 

Newsom proposed the prison closures as part of his revised budget, which was filled with cuts to make up for a $54 billion shortfall, as the state moves into a brutal recession amid the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

With plunging juvenile crime rates and the state’s hulking facilities housing relatively few juvenile offenders, costs per youth have soared to $320,000 a year, according to research by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

But there has been a human cost as well, the governor emphasized in his budget plan, and he sees a better way: “Closing state juvenile facilities and directing a portion of the state savings to county probation departments will enable youth to remain in their communities and stay close to their families to support rehabilitation.”

Thursday’s news, tucked away in a budget otherwise filled with devastating cuts to social programs came as a shock to even the most dedicated juvenile justice advocates. Reaction ranged from celebration to grave concern.

Macallair called the closures a welcome end to a “19th century system of juvenile justice.” 

“Budget pressures sometimes force an awakening – and that’s what happened here,” he said. “The facilities were beyond fixing despite numerous attempts.”

Macallair noted that for years, counties already keep most youthful offenders in juvenile halls and camps near their families and communities.  

Of the original 11 youth prisons run by the state, there are now just three facilities and one low-security camp. The population of 10,000 roughly 25 years ago is now fewer than 800, according to state figures.

“There’s no kid in the juvenile justice system today in California that can’t be held at the local level,” Macallair said.  

In 2002, reports of inhumane conditions and rampant abuse in state facilities led to a consent decree with an Alameda County judge, and sweeping plans for reform. The state system, then known as the California Youth Authority, was forced to adopt remedial plans to ameliorate Dickensian conditions at the facilities and provide meaningful opportunities for education, mental health treatment and job training in environments that were safe enough for young people to learn and grow.

Judicial oversight ended 14 years later, and the “CYA” became the Division of Juvenile Justice. Yet even amid plunging rates of youth crime – and counties sending far fewer offenders to state facilities – advocates still had plenty to be concerned about, including violence inside the facilities and an increasing suicide rate.  

In Newsom, there was a sympathetic ear for further reform. Soon after he took office in January 2019, the governor vowed to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.” Newsom signed a plan to rename the juvenile justice system yet again, and to rebrand its mission. The newly named Department of Youth and Community Restoration described its approach as “trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate.”

Now, even those plans have changed. In March, Newsom signed an executive order temporarily halting new detentions to state juvenile facilities, to curb the spread of coronavirus. His plan Thursday proposes to make that stoppage permanent. Under the budget plan announced Thursday, beginning Jan. 1, no new juvenile offenders will be admitted to the two prisons located in Stockton, a third in Ventura, and a firefighting camp in Amador County.  

Juvenile offenders in California would be housed instead at county-run juvenile detention camps and ranches until age 18. After that, they would be sent to a new program at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla designed to provide more educational, therapeutic and vocational opportunities than most adult prisons.   

Local probation-run juvenile detention facilities currently house about 3,600 youthful offenders in halls, camps and ranches. But there is plenty of room for more across the state. The governor’s budget proposal described these county facilities as operating at roughly one-third of capacity. Newsom proposes providing $2.4 million this year to county probation departments to ease the transition, with a promise of additional funds in the future.

Still, Brian Richart, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, said probation departments that run local facilities may well need more resources than the state is offering, and more time to create a plan for a greater number of “high-risk and high-needs youth.”

“The youth at DJJ have the most serious needs, which if left unaddressed, pose the most serious risk to our communities,” he said in a statement sent to The Chronicle of Social Change.

Youth from the Division of Juvenile Justice’s Pine Grove fire camp climb a trail on a sand dune in San Luis Obispo County. Photo courtesy of Claudette Perrin

Ezekiel Nishiyama, a 19-year-old policy associate with the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition who spent three years in the state’s youth prison system, is also concerned that many county probation departments won’t be able to provide sufficient rehabilitative programming.

Nishiyama said he spent five months at Pinegrove Camp, where he worked as a firefighter. That work took him across the state to fight wildfires, work that gave him valuable experience, pride and the feeling of giving back. 

“If I was released from a facility where I wasn’t learning any skills or gaining any experience,” he said, “I would have been completely lost when I was released.

“You can’t remove DJJ and substitute something that’s worse.”

Even some juvenile justice advocates were wary of the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice. Frankie Guzman, director of the California Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law, said he was “sick to his stomach” from the news, because the change may lead judges to charge more young offenders as adults. 

Guzman — who spent six years at the California Youth Authority—said the state juvenile justice system now offers judges an alternative to having youth transferred to the adult system. 

Under current state law, youthful offenders can remain in the state’s juvenile lockups until age 25 if a judge finds that they can benefit from the rehabilitative services it offers. Under the governor’s plan, as Guzman reads it, some youth would be sent straight to adult prisons after turning 18. 

“We’re throwing them to the wolves in the name of a balanced budget,” Guzman said.

 Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 341 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.