California is in the process of revising standards for the state’s local juvenile justice facilities, which confine and detain thousands of young people every year. These standards should protect young people from the rampant abuse, trauma and violence that occur within these facilities.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Children’s Defense Fund-California, Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement and a broad network of advocates have pushed California to consider more humane standards for justice-involved youth. California’s state oversight agency, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), is poised to review them on Feb. 8.
While the proposed standards contain many positive changes, including improvements for visitation and vegetarian meal options, they also recommend that the state continue to allow the use of chemical spray against young people. This puts California out of step with the majority of the country and endangers young people. The use of chemical spray within juvenile justice facilities is neither an effective behavior management tool nor rehabilitative in any fashion. California must act now to ban the use of chemical spray against youth.
California is in the small minority of states that continue to allow facility staff to carry chemical spray, let alone use it against youth in juvenile facilities. California is one of 14 states that allows chemical spray to be used by juvenile justice staff within their facilities and one of only five states that allows youth corrections staff to carry chemical spray on their person.
However, even within California, county systems vary in their reliance on this harmful practice. One recent inspection report found that San Diego County used chemical spray in situations where there was no attempt at de-escalation. The report recommended the probation department end this reliance altogether given concerns about its widespread use.
Other jurisdictions, such as Santa Clara County, have phased out their use of chemical spray. That county’s probation department found a newly developed cognitive behavioral program was a much more effective alternative to the pilot use of chemical spray, which was subsequently discontinued.
Young people tell us how chemical spray traumatizes them. In January 2017, youth across California provided thoughtful comments through an online survey and focus group. Throughout this process, justice-involved young people and their families spoke about their lived experience. They recounted how the physical and mental impacts of chemical spray can be long-lasting, with youth describing burns to their skin that do not quickly dissipate.
While staff may target individual youth who are deemed disruptive, the spray inevitably creates collateral harm to other nearby youth. Approximately 67 percent of youth surveyed said that staff had used chemical spray or other suppression materials against them, while 90 percent stated there were no effective grievance procedures to address such activities.
Chemical spray should not be used as a tool for behavior management or punishment. Despite the best intentions of systems leaders, facility administrators and juvenile correctional staff, chemical spray deteriorates trust between staff and young people and represents a failure of staff training.
Instead, facilities should develop proven alternative techniques. A report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy highlights examples, which include staff training on conflict management and de-escalation techniques. Facilities should also adopt appropriate staffing ratios to improve safety and youth outcomes.
In addition to the issue of chemical spray, California’s BSCC is also considering whether to utilize nationally recognized staffing ratios. Such staffing ratios, coupled with greater training and a ban on the use of chemical spray against young people, will make California safer.
Brian Goldstein is the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's director of policy and development.