California Leaders Embrace Youth Voices, but Miss Opportunity for Major Reform

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California: A street side sign indicating the location of buildings involved with the juvenile correctional departments in Orange County, Calif.

David Tonelson/Shutterstock

The California Legislature ended its 2019 session by passing several juvenile justice reforms that will increase protections for youth and place much-needed limits on harmful system overreach. These legislative victories are due, in large part, to the leadership of youth and community advocates who have closely engaged in the legislative process and placed the voices of those directly impacted by the justice system at the center of each policy debate. 

However, one of the year’s landmark juvenile justice reforms, Senate Bill 284, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, ending its chances of becoming law. SB 284’s defeat represents a major setback for youth leaders and justice reform advocates in California.

The bill, authored by Democratic Sen. Jim Beall, would have reduced reliance on the notoriously dangerous state youth correctional facilities, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), by reversing a perverse incentive for counties to send youth into state custody. 

California, like many states across the nation, continues to operate a system of state-run institutions for youth. These facilities are inherently dangerous, exposing youth to prisonlike conditions while keeping them in remote locations far from loved ones and those who can help them advocate for better care. California’s state institutions have existed for decades and reflect antiquated views of how best to rehabilitate young people. Despite compelling evidence of their harm, DJJ continues to house hundreds of youth, and its numbers are on the rise. 

DJJ sustains its youth population by receiving regular commitments from California’s counties. While many counties consider DJJ a placement of last resort and send few or no youth to the facilities, a small number of counties have shown a troubling overreliance on the state system. In fact, in 2017, just five of California’s 58 counties made up nearly 50% of the population of DJJ. 

In an effort to curb geographic disparities and limit the flow of youth into the facilities, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) joined a coalition of youth, families and youth-serving organizations in co-sponsoring SB 284. The bill moved quickly through the legislative process, enjoying strong support in both houses of the Legislature. 

‘Incomplete reform’

However, Gov. Gavin Newsom ultimately chose to veto SB 284, citing a related reform his office is spearheading within the institutions: In 2020, he will be transferring DJJ from California’s adult prison system into the Health and Human Services Agency and will rename it the Department of Youth and Community Restoration (DYCR). Additionally, the governor has approved a large budget increase for DJJ and ongoing funding to establish a “therapeutic communities” program within the institutions. 

These changes are unlikely to improve living conditions or post-release outcomes for youth in the facilities. In fact, CJCJ’s research has found that DJJ’s dangerous institutional culture has survived many previous reform attempts spanning decades. This latest effort will entail some staff retraining, but no major changes to the institutions or their structure, allowing the system to remain fundamentally nonrehabilitative. 

In his veto decision for SB 284, Gov. Newsom explained that he would prefer to see his reforms take effect before considering ways to downsize the institutions: “It is important that any re-evaluation of what type of population is served at DYCR be done with this global shift in mind.” 

However, national best practices indicate that maintaining a low population of youth and pursuing further reductions is critical to any improvements within the facilities. By investing heavily in incomplete reform and touting untested therapeutic approaches, California may be deepening its reliance on a broken system and contributing to a dangerous rise in the DJJ population.

Despite this major missed opportunity, 2019 also brought several key victories for youth in California. In October, Gov. Newsom signed a package of 24 bills related to public safety and the justice system. Of those bills, five pertained to youth in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, including Assembly Bill 1423 by Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, which will create a pathway for youth to return to juvenile court after being transferred to adult criminal court. It also included Assembly Bill 965 by Democratic Assemblymember Mark Stone, which will expand opportunities for early parole consideration for those sentenced to adult prison as young people. 

Additionally, the governor signed Senate Bill 419 by Democratic Sen. Nancy Skinner, which will narrow the state’s school-to-prison pipeline by prohibiting the suspension of fourth through eighth grade students for “willful defiance or disruption.” This practice has contributed to hundreds of thousands of missed learning days for students whose behaviors would be better addressed within the classroom. 

The governor also signed Senate Bill 716 by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell, which will require juvenile facilities to provide post-secondary education programs, either in-person or online, to all youth who have completed high school. By expanding learning opportunities in locked facilities, SB 716 will help support high school graduates in building the skills they will need to succeed upon release.

In 2019, many California legislators looked to the expertise of young people when developing juvenile justice bills that prioritize the health, safety and education of youth. Though not all of the reforms endorsed by the Legislature were signed into law, the increasing presence of youth voices in the Capitol has pushed state leaders and their staff to begin viewing accountability and justice through a new lens. California’s recent victories, and the methods that youth and community advocates used to secure them, offer a roadmap to youth-led movements across the country that are harnessing political power and bringing bold change to the juvenile justice system. 

Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

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