Months after California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) left federal oversight over conditions at its correctional facilities, advocates say that problems like institutional violence and poor mental health care are endemic at the three remaining DJJ facilities.
In 2002, public interest law firm Prison Law Office launched a landmark lawsuit (known as the Farrell litigation) against the California Youth Authority (now known as the DJJ) in response to allegations of widespread of abuse and neglect of youth at its 11 facilities.
The case led a judge at a Superior Court in Alameda County to issue a consent decree requiring DJJ to implement six remedial plans that overhauled health, safety, mental health, sex behavior treatment, disabilities services and education systems at the detention facilities.
In February 2016, the court released DJJ from the consent decree, citing some progress on four of the remedial plans and acknowledging that the safety and mental health plans had not been fully implemented.
But a report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) says after the consent decree, youth at the three DJJ facilities continue to experience troubling issues with violence, gang culture and poor mental health care as a result of a lack of oversight of the mental health and safety remedial plans.
“Given the lawsuit is over, there is nobody holding DJJ accountable,” said Erica Webster, one of the authors of the report. “There is no longer an independent monitoring entity making sure that DJJ is following through” on its remediation plans.
CJCJ co-authors Webster and Nisha Ajmani point to a lack of access to mental health care at the DJJ facilities, citing a December 2015 oversight report that described a lack of trained mental health professionals at the facilities, including psychologists. The situation became severe enough that youth who required intermediate and acute mental health care were transferred to adult prisons to receive mental health treatment.
“It shows [DJJ ] doesn’t have the ability to treat these young people who have severe and serious mental health needs,” said Ajmani. “Now, there isn’t going to be any comprehensive follow up to the issues that were left unaddressed at the end of the lawsuit. This raises serious concerns on our part in relation to the mental health system at the facilities.”
The CJCJ report also raised questions about violent incidents involving youth at the correctional facilities. Webster and Ajmani cited state correctional data that shows that rates of violence have increased from 2011 to 2015. They also contend that most DJJ youth are housed in units that are more crowded than national best practices and that the DJJ has not invested enough into gang-prevention programs at the facilities.
In 1995, more than 10,000 youth were confined in 11 facilities across the state. By 2007, the figure had dropped to 2,500.
Today, about 700 youth reside in the three remaining facilities: two in Stockton, and one in Ventura.
The authors of the CJCJ report say that declining youth crime rates in California and the state’s 2007 realignment of its juvenile-justice system are more responsible for the lower numbers than DJJ efforts under the consent decree.
With realignment, the most serious juvenile offenders in the state are housed at DJJ correctional facilities, usually for offenses like murder, robbery and rape. The vast majority of youth offenders are now overseen by probation departments at the county level across the state.
CJCJ long advocated for the complete closure of the DJJ system, pushing instead for DJJ youth to be placed at smaller, county-level facilities.