California’s Closure of DJJ Is Victory With Significant Challenges

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alt text: California: Soccer ball caught in barbed wall on top of wall.

Courtesy of Tracie Cone, Board of State and Community Corrections

The exercise yard at Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall in Modesto, Calif.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the closure of the state’s youth justice system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), with the release of his revised state budget on Thursday. Shortly after taking office last year, he promised to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.” His administration planned to remove DJJ from the management of the state’s prison system and place it in the health department. 

California: David Muhammad (headshot), executive director of National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, balding man gesturing wearing dark suit, dark striped tie, light shirt

David Muhammad

But now with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the state budget, the crisis has turned into an opportunity. Newsom now plans to shutter the state system altogether, leaving it to the individual counties to house youth adjudicated for the most serious offenses. 

No question this is a victory for youth justice advocates. It is just a very complicated victory fraught with potential pitfalls and unintended consequences. 

DJJ, formerly known as the California Youth Authority (CYA), has a long history of scandal, horrible conditions, terrible outcomes and excessive spending. In the 1990s there were 10,000 youth incarcerated in the juvenile prisons with another nearly 10,000 youth in CYA’s parole system. Today the parole system no longer exists, having already been transferred to the counties, and there are less than 700 youth in the three remaining DJJ facilities. The state spends more than $300,000 every year for each youth. 

From 1999-2004, I made the nearly two-hour drive from Oakland, Calif., to the then-four CYA facilities in Stockton, Calif., once or twice a week to facilitate cognitive behavioral therapy sessions with the youth and young adults. During that time, violence in CYA facilities was at its peak, five youth died in a single year, the recidivism rate was above 90%, and conditions in the facilities were harsh. An exposé series by the San Jose Mercury News, along with fierce advocacy, led to several counties placing a moratorium on sending youth to the state system. 

Eventually a lawsuit resulted in a consent decree requiring a long list of court-ordered reforms. The California legislature also limited the youth who could be sent to the system to only those charged with serious and violent offenses. Despite the extraordinary downsizing and numerous reforms, DJJ remains a troubled system. If done right, its closure will be a victory for youth, their families and the community. 

But simply handing the youth over to the county probation departments is not reason enough alone to celebrate. There are significant challenges ahead. Though youth enter DJJ for offenses committed prior to turning 18, they can remain in the juvenile facilities until their 25th birthday. The average length of stay in DJJ is two years. Although county facilities have far more capacity than needed to absorb the 600 to 700 youth in DJJ custody now, county juvenile halls currently hold youth up to 18 years old and are designed for short stays, between 20 to 35 days. 

When I was the chief probation officer of Alameda County, I agreed with Gov. Jerry Brown when he called for DJJ’s closure in 2011. Back then, there were 35 youth from my county in the state system who I planned to house at a refurbished county camp. But today I agree with advocates that we should not waste precious resources, spending many millions on constructing new buildings to incarcerate youth. 

Yet that does pose a dilemma. We have empty beds in county facilities, but they are designed for short-term stays and do not have the appropriate space for recreation, rehabilitation, treatment and vocational programming. The schools are run by the county offices of education, with varying quality across the state, but none equipped to teach 20-year-olds. 

Then you take a place like Los Angeles County, the size of many countries, and in one sense it looks ideal to take its youth back from the state. It is the county with the most youth in DJJ, a county with several closed facilities that actually have programming space, and a county probation department with 6,000 employees and a $900 million budget. But it’s a county with such a long-troubled juvenile justice system that many in the field fear it would be worse than DJJ. 

Counties need to develop high-quality transformative residential programs. Secure programs that hold youth for more than six months should be reserved for youth who have been adjudicated for serious offenses and who have been assessed as high risk. Without such an option, these are youth who would likely be charged as adults. 

These programs must have a residential and therapeutic environment and not resemble a jail, as the juvenile halls in California do today. These programs must have quality education, including higher education, rehabilitation programming, treatment and therapy options, and vocational training. This will require appropriate resources not currently included in the governor’s budget. 

While we celebrate a victory in youth justice reform amidst a global pandemic, we must also recognize the long road ahead to make this successful. 

David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the former chief probation officer of Alameda County, Calif.  

6 thoughts on “California’s Closure of DJJ Is Victory With Significant Challenges

  1. DJJ should be closed! Its basically a college training course for prison gangs. Youth don’t get to do well for themselves till the “prove themselves”. For everyone one success story there is 20 unfortunate ones. And with those success stories you dont hear about what they had to endure to get out. Stories so horrible , they probably choose to forget, just to get away.

  2. As a practitioner, I have had an opportunity to work with juveniles, youthful offenders and adult prisoners. Removing DJJ facilities from state government is not the answer. Remember state government, failure is not an option.

  3. I am in support of this closure. As a clinician who worked and received forensic training with this population, and went on to work with out-patient clients who are 290 registrants in the state. Some of these clients were 16 when they were sentenced to CYA and then transferred to the CDC. Altho I am in support of accountability for one’s actions, I do not believe that the way to rehabilitate theses juveniles is through the current system. The way of change is through education and therapeutic intervention management. A collaborative approach such as the containment model and psychoeducation would be a more effective approach.

  4. It’s unfortunate that CJCJ and other youth advocates like Books not Bars cheer the closing of DJJ, when DJJ has been a stabilizing factor for many at risk youth throughout California; without DJJ, may of these youth would be in State Prison doing hard time and becoming better criminals.
    DJJ has shown growth and improvement in regards to the treatment of youth and development of their facilities to make the institutions look, feel and perform as treatment facilities for youthful offenders, over the past 10 years.
    CJCJ only presents a one sided view of how DJJ/CYA was in the past and shares old facts and information, instead of looking objectively and reporting accurately at all the changes that DJJ has made.
    CJCJ should look for and write about all the success stories of youth that have discharged from DJJ and have been successful in the communities by having a job, continuing with their education, mentoring other youth and giving back to their neighborhoods.
    If CJCJ and Books not Bars would focus their energy, time, money and effort in helping these at risk youth get training, education and employment in their communities prior to the youth committing a crime, then the youth population in DJJ would be minimal and we would have less youth incarcerated in California.
    Unfortunately, at this time, the Counties can’t handle these DJJ youth with all their challenges beginning with trauma, gangs to mental health issues.

  5. DJJ is impossible to closed! Again, many have tried and DJJ is still standing. Proposal only, Senate has to approved, which they won’t! These kids are criminals

  6. I agree with Director Muhammad, and would also point out that despite their failings, DJJ has some highly qualified and dedicated professionals working with the youth. I the short term, closing DJJ is a bit like throwing out the baby with the very dirty bath water. Rather than reducing ineffective incarceration practices, some counties will probably build expensive new facilities like they did when the state’s adult system reduced its population. This just transferred mass incarceration from the state to the county and caused some inmates to be housed in facilities that were even less appropriate than the state’s facilities.

    It will certainly be unfortunate if this change ultimately causes the rate of incarceration to increase for youth, and/or if they are put into the adult system in increased numbers. My idea is for the State to continue to maintain a state-of-the-art facility that can keep youth out of the adult system and also provide effective treatment and other programming. Under my plan, the counties would have to pay the state for this service. The counties would bear the cost, but would not have to build new facilities. This money should not be invisible spending from the residents of the county, but done in a way so that they know the price of throwing their children into the “system” rather than practicing a more effective types of Transformative Justice. If they see the price tag, and feel the pain of the costs, maybe they would support less costly programs that are more evidence-based and victim centered.
    Unfortunately, as a country, we generally tend not to use programs shown to reduce recidivism (and restore victims), but opt for more expensive incarceration options that are more harmful to society.

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