The Next Chapter for Reforming California’s Juvenile Justice Agency: A Therapeutic Model

California Gov. Gavin Newsom visits the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, Calif., in January. The latest version of the state budget includes a plan to develop “therapeutic communities” in facilities overseen by the state’s juvenile justice agency, including Close. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor.

As California works toward finalizing a new state budget, the legislature this week provided some long-awaited clues about the future of reforms to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

A budget approved by the state legislature now appears to call for the creation of an $8 million “therapeutic communities” pilot project inspired by a successful alternative to youth incarceration in large facilities. That’s a part of a set of state investments in the budget designed to shift the juvenile justice system away from traditional correctional models.

“The therapeutic model, the Missouri Model so to speak, can happen within DJJ, on a unit with three or smaller groups, all going through this journey together,” said DJJ Director Chuck Supple at a May budget hearing.

The Missouri Division of Youth Services pioneered a model of secure confinement that is predicated on moving youth offenders out of large institutions and into small residential facilities close to the young people’s communities.

A shift to a therapeutic model like Missouri’s appears to be at odds with DJJ’s history.

The system now holds about 700 of the state’s most serious juvenile offenders in three institutional facilities. That is a far cry from 20 years ago when the agency held more than 10,000 youth and was known as the California Youth Authority.

But the state’s large, far-flung juvenile facilities are nothing like the small, dorm-like settings used in Missouri. A report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) earlier this year alleged that those facilities are often plagued with widespread violence and that youth there have difficulty accessing mental health resources, among other issues.

In the budget deal reached on Thursday, the only information available about the therapeutic pilot project was that it would “be determined by best practices, be trauma informed, be culturally appropriate, and build healthy family connections.”

According to state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D), chair of the Senate’s budget subcommittee for corrections, public safety and the judiciary, the idea of creating therapeutic options within a larger institution has a precedent in the California prison system.

“If we look at the adult side, we have created these therapeutic communities in a couple of adult prisons, in R.J. Donovan and in Lancaster, a couple of other places where we use smaller cohorts of individuals and we engage a different kind of programming with them while they’re still housed in our correctional facilities,” Skinner said at the May budget hearing. “I would love to see that start sooner rather than later [at DJJ].”

That plan has met opposition from advocates like CJCJ’s Maureen Washburn. While cautioning that she does not know exactly what the “therapeutic communities” plan entails — details are relatively scarce— Washburn said that the DJJ’s institutional nature and locations far from the homes of most youth would prevent the realization of the goals of therapeutic rehabilitation.

The therapeutic designation could also offer a perverse incentive for counties to send more youth to the state system instead of placements close to home, she said.

There will be potentially a real inclination from judges to send youth in even higher numbers than they already are to DJJ if they perceive it as a therapeutic place that will provide healing and will ensure the young person is rehabilitated when in fact that’s not likely to be the case,” said Washburn, a policy analyst with CJCJ.

In January California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vowed to reorganize the state’s juvenile justice agency by rebranding it as the Department of Youth and Community Restoration, and moving it from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the California Health and Human Services Agency. According to Newsom, the move would help the state’s juvenile justice system better address the trauma faced by young people detained at DJJ facilities.

Until earlier this month, little information was available on what would become of the DJJ aside from its potential change of address. In the budget approved by the state legislature on Thursday — it now heads to the governor’s desk for final tweaks — the plan for DJJ now includes $8 million next year for “therapeutic communities” plus $1.2 million to help train current DJJ staff to support the more rehabilitative mission of the new agency.

The legislature’s budget also includes $5 million to revive the state’s Youth Reinvestment Grant, a fund started last year to provide grants for community-based programs to improve outcomes for youth who would otherwise face system involvement. Last year’s budget also included $1.2 million earmarked for trauma-informed diversion programs for Native American youth. This year, that investment has grown to $10 million allocated for tribal youth diversion.

“We are thrilled that the legislature found a compromise and are putting another one-time investment in children and youth,” said Anna Johnson of the National Center for Youth Law. “A three-year program like this will make the difference in thousands of children’s lives since nearly 60,000 children a year come into contact with law enforcement for youthful behaviors. “

The legislature declined to take up a separate ask of Newsom: the Fostering Success Fund, which would have allocated money to the California Department of Social Services to fund approaches to decreasing arrests of foster youth, especially those originating at group home placements.

Finally, the legislature’s budget also includes $5 million to help Los Angeles County defray the costs of transforming a shuttered juvenile detention camp into a vocational center for transition-age youth.

According to an April county report, L.A. is set to completely remodel its now-closed Challenger Memorial Center, once home to some of the county’s most serious youth offenders. The plan now calls for the former detention camp to serve as a voluntary residential career training center so at-risk or systems-involved young adults, including those experiencing homelessness, can receive specialized rehabilitation and re-entry services. It’s now the second former juvenile detention camp slated to see a second life as a vocational center.

California Gov. Newsom must sign a completed budget by the end of the month, though there are some rumblings that a gubernatorial signature could come even sooner than that.

Sara Tiano contributed to this article.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at