Who are we and what do we stand for in criminal and juvenile justice reform? Against the backdrop of a contentious election season and robust conversations about justice reforms that have included proposals to build private prisons, the Children’s Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA) is taking a pause to revisit and rearticulate the values that guide our work as youth justice advocates.
What are the values that guide us in creating better alternatives to broken justice systems for youth? What should a continuum of responses look like for children in conflict with the law, from those who miss too many school days to those who commit more serious offenses?
First and foremost, we know what has not worked and what we don’t stand for — mass incarceration. Locking people up in droves has never been shown to actually increase public safety, but has been correlated with higher rates of recidivism and trauma.
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Incarceration must always be a last resort, not a first impulse; it must always be for the shortest duration possible. Yet only in recent years have we begun to reverse some three decades of mass prison construction and mass incarceration.
In the early 1980s, California had 12 adult prisons. By 2005, the state had built 22 more and filled them to overcapacity, mostly with people of color, typically for sentences disproportionate to the offense, and too frequently for relatively minor crimes rooted in untreated drug and mental health issues. During that same period, the population in the state’s juvenile prison system, the California Youth Authority, ballooned to more than 10,000 youth by the mid-1990s.
None of the fast construction and growth of the prison population corresponded closely to crime rates — in fact, incarceration rates increased while crime rates decreased. Meanwhile, California built no new universities or colleges during that time.
The investment of billions in incarceration exacted vast human and economic costs. Lawsuits targeting both the adult and youth prison systems exposed rampant abuses, horrid conditions and the inability to meet the needs of people inside — in part due to the sheer size of the populations and overcrowding. The system became financially untenable. Thanks largely to bold advocacy and organizing, incarceration was scaled back. The California Youth Authority, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice, closed eight of 11 facilities. Since 2013, the combined population of the three remaining facilities has remained below 700.
Attempts to right-size the system should continue. As we recognize the mistakes of our past in creating a supersized prison industry, California should be closing half-empty and outdated facilities, and resist any further expansion of private or public prison systems. For youth, arrests are at historic lows, as are populations in detention facilities and prisons. Just in the last year, the California Department of Justice reported a 17.1 percent decline in youth arrests.
For the remaining state and local facilities, CDF-CA will continue to advocate for humane and effective treatment. Our organization has been an active partner with Los Angeles County agencies and stakeholders to renovate facilities, and reorient programs and practices more toward therapeutic interventions and education, and away from punitive approaches like solitary confinement.
All the while, CDF-CA is acutely aware that history has repeated itself over and over again — teaching us that institutions are inherently vulnerable to shifts in political climate, leadership change and overall deterioration of mission. For example, the California Youth Authority was once regarded as an enlightened step forward in juvenile justice. Visitors from around the world toured its facilities to model their own practices after its emphasis on therapeutic intervention and community-based programming. Over time, its facilities steadily declined in their programming and treatment of youth.
We unequivocally believe that mass incarceration should be replaced with mass investments in people and communities. We must continue to downsize a system that has too many entrances and too few viable exits.
We believe in shifting resources away from an overgrown prison and criminal justice economy into neighborhoods most devastated by violence and crime, which are often the same neighborhoods most devastated by policing, surveillance and incarceration.
We believe in strengthening communities through investments in schools, jobs, businesses, community centers, libraries and parks, rather than, and not in addition to, “nicer,” “newer,” “alternative” prisons or detention facilities.
We believe that rather than removing predominantly children of color from their so-called “toxic” families and communities to provide education, arts, therapy and other evidence-based interventions, we should value and provide for them where they live in the first instance. It is simply common sense to invest at the front end of young people’s lives.
This shift in resources is also a shift in paradigm — one that is part and parcel of Black Lives Matter and other racial equity movements that challenge thin veils of fear, distrust and surveillance over young black and brown bodies and systems that condition their nurture, learning and growth on being institutionalized.
In other words, we as a society still do not trust youth, families and communities of color with their own development unless we also monitor them through some state or private institution. But as long as we pour money into a framework that subsists on control and containment, even when it is also meant to be about treatment and care, our investments in communities, regarded with distrust and even fear, will continue to pale in comparison.
As various reform proposals are debated, CDF-CA urges that we learn from history and avoid any expansion of the system, especially its capacity to incarcerate: That is not justice for children.
Patricia Soung is a senior staff attorney and senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California and directs its efforts around juvenile justice reform. Dominique Nong is a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California.