Listen to Youth Voices to Bring California Facilities Into 21st Century

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“I went to the halls at a young age — not too street smart. I came out with a lot more anger at the system due to mistreatment of the youth.”

This was one young person’s response to a survey created by a partnership of California youth advocacy organizations — the California Endowment, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Children’s Defense Fund-California, the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and the Youth Justice Coalition — in order to solicit an essential perspective in juvenile justice reform: the voice of formerly incarcerated youth.

This year California will review the standards that govern daily life for youth in its county juvenile halls, camps and ranches. These standards determine everything from access to toothpaste and clean clothes to the quality of education and case management services. They are also used to hold juvenile facilities accountable during inspections and are meant to ensure that young people are treated humanely.

Even with the physical and mental health of young people at stake, these standards rarely solicit youth perspectives and consistently fail to promote research, compassion or safety. Now, California has the opportunity to improve these standards, and ground them in research and the lived experience of justice-involved young people.

Of the 77 youth surveyed, about 67 percent said staff members used pepper spray or other weapons against them and 90 percent said there was no fair grievance process to follow up on questionable disciplinary measures. Seventy-five percent said they received minimal to no reentry services, and many youth complained of poor quality hygiene, meals and stained undergarments. When asked the broad question of what should be changed in youth facilities, respondents suggested establishing family communication programs, providing access to education through community colleges and “rebuilding the infrastructure of counseling.”

As it stands, the current juvenile standards provide zero guidance for reentry services, effective case management and the rehabilitation systems needed to help young people succeed. In fact, some respondents recommended that California end youth incarceration altogether and replace juvenile facilities with youth development centers focused on preparing young people for higher education, employment and careers.

Juvenile justice research supports these suggestions from young people — specifically the request for increased family engagement. Despite abundant studies proving the importance of in-person visitation, there is a growing trend in U.S. county jails to replace in-person visitation with costly, low-tech video visitation. While the inadequacies of video visitation are numerous, the benefits of in-person visitation include reduced recidivism, lower in-custody violence and stronger family connections. California has a chance to stymie this trend in the juvenile system by securing and expanding in-person visitation in youth facilities.

One survey respondent stated, “[W]hile I was locked up, [my girlfriend] had our son and I didn’t get to see my son.” Another said, “My parents were able to come visit (although only one parent would come). I couldn’t see siblings and access to the phone was limited.”

Youth in California are currently allowed a minimum of two visiting hours per week from their parent or guardian. Not only should the minimum hours increase considerably, but permissible visitors should include additional family members, friends, significant others and children of incarcerated young people.

There is also extensive research on maintaining youth safety that, for decades, California has failed to incorporate into the juvenile facility standards. For example, California currently allows for open dormitory-style living units housing up to 30 youth. However, it has long been known that large living spaces with more than 10 beds increases rates of violence and deepens gang problems.

In fact, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) recommended in 1994 that open dormitories be eliminated from youth facilities. Likewise, California fails to utilize staffing ratios necessary for keeping youth safe, which defies the national standards of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and OJJDP.

This year California has the opportunity to invest in compassion and humanity over punitive discipline and coercion that only serves to traumatize young people. The first step to accomplishing this is by listening to what those impacted by the juvenile justice system have been saying for decades. From there, we can finally translate the wealth of mental health and youth development research into actual community impact.

Erica Webster is the communications and policy analyst at the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

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