As Governor Considers Reforms, Violence Rising at California’s Juvenile Justice Facilities

California’s state juvenile justice facilities have become more violent again, and one advocacy group said it is time to start setting them on a path to extinction.

A report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), chronicling the recent troubles at youth prisons run by the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), comes at a time when the agency’s future is already in flux following legislative action and special scrutiny from California Governor Gavin Newsom (D). After unveiling his first budget in January, Newsom vowed to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.”

In his budget proposal, he suggested placing DJJ under the umbrella of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, away from its current home in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. According to Newsom, the new plan is about trying to help DJJ youth “unpack trauma and adverse experiences many have suffered.”

But more drastic changes need to be made to DJJ to realize this vision, according to San Francisco-based CJCJ.

“Simply moving DJJ from one agency to another without any major shift in the staffing or the structure of the institutions, or the location that young people are going to, is not going to have any meaningful impact on the everyday experience … or the culture,” said Maureen Washburn, a CJCJ policy analyst and co-author of the report. “Regardless of the current leadership and the department’s current intentions, we’re still seeing youth living in prison-like conditions in isolated, aging facilities far from home.”

According to the most recent California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) data available, there are 668 youth at three DJJ correctional facilities across the state and one fire camp. The annual cost for a youth to stay at a DJJ facility is $300,000 a year, according to state budget calculations from last year.

The CJCJ report lays out several issues for facilities designed to hold California’s most serious and violent youth offenders, including: the punitive conditions at the facilities; violence experienced by youth; limited access to medical and mental health resources for DJJ youth; and a lack of programs designed to support youth returning to communities after incarceration.

“DJJ leaves youth traumatized, disconnected and poorly prepared for life after release,” the report reads. “Today, as it has for more than 100 years, the state system is failing youth, their families and their communities, and is neglecting its most basic obligation: to rehabilitate young people and keep them safe.”

The report pays special attention to a rising wave of violence at DJJ facilities. Looking at self-reported CDCR data, use-of-force incidents at DJJ facilities increased three-fold from 2016 to 2018, and according to CJCJ, nearly every youth interviewed for the report witnessed or experienced at least one inappropriate use of force.

Youth play cards together at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, California. Photo courtesy of CJCJ

During the same period, the rate of youth subjected to beatings rose by 49 percent and youth involved in riots increased by 13 percent, while youth involved in fighting incidents declined by 8 percent, according to CDCR data. Suicide attempts have increased since 2016. There have been 28 suicide attempts in that period, with 20 occurring at the Ventura facility. In the most recent year where CDCR data is available, suicide attempts have risen by three times — up to 10 from three in 2015-2016.

That timeline is significant because it comes after the end of Farrell v Allen, a class-action lawsuit where the agreed-upon consent decree mandated improved conditions at DJJ facilities. From 2004 until February 2016, the Farrell litigation ensured that a special monitor reviewed quarterly reports and ensured that the DJJ was following plans designed to address health, safety, mental health, sexual behavior treatment, disabilities services and education systems at the detention facilities.

At the time DJJ left the oversight of the Farrell lawsuit, CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan hailed the progress it made during the consent decree.

“DJJ has transformed itself into a national leader run by a staff that believes in rehabilitation,” Kernan said at the time.

DJJ has also been shaped by other gubernatorial reform efforts. Last year, former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) allowed youth sent to DJJ from juvenile court to stay until 25 and signed off on a pilot project for young adult offenders, shifting the system toward young adults.

But CJCJ and other advocates would like to see DJJ wind down in favor of juvenile justice systems run at the local level. Most county-run juvenile juvenile detention camps and ranches are now running at well below capacity and even shutting down. CJCJ analyst Washburn said she would like to see the DJJ facilities shuttered and most of its population sent to the local level.

“We want to have a conversation about what the phasing out of DJJ could look like over the next couple years and thinking through how we could maximize the space that we have at the local level, spending on caring for youth at the local level to encourage the best practices that are already happening there,” she said.

Part of CJCJ’s effort to reduce the DJJ’s footprint also includes recent proposed legislation that would increase the amount of money that counties must spend on young people sent to DJJ facilities. Current law calls for California counties to pay $24,000 a year for the care of young people in the DJJ.

Introduced by State Senator Jim Beall, Senate Bill 284 would increase a county’s cost for sending a youth to DJJ to $125,000 a year, creating a fiscal incentive for counties to invest in serving many of these youth locally.

“SB 284 is a really important step in reigning in some of the population growth we’ve had at the DJJ and ensuring that counties really do have a choice between DJJ and local options if that’s a better opportunity for a young person,” Washburn said.

The bill will have its first hearing next month, another step in the battle over the future of the DJJ.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 322 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.