Last fall, the Miami Herald exposed alarming abuses within Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, including guard-sanctioned beatings, excessive use of force and rampant violence. Likewise, in late 2017, reporters at the Dallas Morning News uncovered sexual abuse by staff in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. These discoveries were troublingly reminiscent of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, which has been mired in scandal for much of its decadeslong history, including a spate of violent incidents, youth suicides and staff misconduct in the early 2000s that resulted in a 12-year consent decree.
Too often in the history of youth corrections, facilities descend — without immediate detection by the public — into disrepair, violence and systemic neglect. Though scandal is often followed by calls for change, large congregate institutions have shown themselves, time and again, to be impervious to real reform. Institutions are, by nature, susceptible to abuses and require permanent safeguards against mistreatment.
One essential safeguard is the presence of an independent monitor. Every youth facility in the nation should be accountable to a monitoring body that conducts unannounced inspections, receives and investigates complaints, documents and aggregates complaint information and issues periodic reports to lawmakers and the public. Some states already maintain a robust monitoring apparatus, which can include nongovernmental organizations with unfettered access to the facilities, an ombudsperson who responds to grievances or a committee of state legislators that conducts routine inspections. To achieve genuine accountability, however, these monitors must remain independent of corrections departments, with budgets, staff and office spaces that are distinct from the agencies they oversee.
Illinois offers one such example: The John Howard Association of Illinois is a nonprofit organization that has been granted special access to the state’s prisons for more than 40 years. The Association routinely inspects youth and adult facilities, observing conditions, following up on complaints and interviewing staff and incarcerated youth and adults. After each inspection, expert monitors and volunteers compile a report that is released to the public. Their work has prompted the closure of decrepit prison units and led to changes in state policy, including improvements to the decision-making process governing the release of confined youth.
In New York state, facilities are overseen by several governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit with the legislative authority to inspect and report on conditions. For more than a century, the Association has monitored state prisons and produced reports detailing their findings. Informed by these data, the Association has successfully advocated for state-level change, including revisions to policies governing the isolation of individuals with mental illness.
California needs NGO with authority
Despite the well-publicized harms of prisonlike institutions for youth, there are few states like Illinois or New York that endow nongovernmental watchdog groups with the authority to inspect facilities. Some states have failed to establish even a credible governmental monitor of their youth system.
California, with its long history of institutional abuses, is notable for its lack of dedicated independent monitoring. From 2004 to 2016, the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice was subject to a consent decree that brought years of court scrutiny and regular inspections by a special master. Yet, with the dismissal of the lawsuit, this check on institutional abuses abruptly ended, leaving an accountability vacuum and far less public information about facility operations, youth outcomes and safety.
Today, a patchwork of agencies offers the illusion of comprehensive oversight in California, while failing to hold its youth facilities to account. For example, the Office of the Inspector General, the Little Hoover Commission and the Board of State and Community Corrections, which are often cited as monitors of the youth justice system, are fairly circumscribed in their authority, with none directly responsible for overseeing the Division of Juvenile Justice.
Moreover, California’s Office of the Ombudsman, which responds to youth and family complaints, is contained within the organizational hierarchy of the prison system — in violation of national and international standards recommending that an ombudsperson be autonomous and free of administrative control. Importantly, California has no designated nongovernmental organization with the authority to inspect facilities and issue reports.
States across the nation are enacting sweeping changes to their justice systems, including abolishing solitary confinement, establishing a higher minimum age for juvenile prosecution and limiting the use of shackling. To secure these victories and ensure that institutional realities reflect changes in the law, states must make a firm commitment to transparency. Only through credible, permanent and independent monitoring that is accountable to youth and families can facilities begin to curb the abuses endemic to youth confinement.
Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.