Reimagining Juvenile Detention Facilities in California Can Heal Our Youth

August 31th, 2020

By Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment, and Chet P. Hewitt, President and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation and a founding member of the California Funders for Boys and Men of Color

After generations of warehousing young people in failed detention facilities more suited to punishment than rehabilitation, we now have an opportunity to change the narrative with a system that sees young people for their potential, not the worst mistakes that they’ve made. We cannot let California’s opportunity to realign the Division of Juvenile Justice (“DJJ”) be wasted by doing the same old thing, only at the local level.

It is not surprising that 93 percent of incarcerated young people are youth of color. The system has been stacked against them as historical and systemic racism has led to underinvestment and over-policing in their communities. We are deeply concerned about moving current Division of Juvenile Justice funds to county probation departments because that simply shifts funding from one carceral system to another, and we already know that this does not work for our young people. By any reasonable measure, community-based alternatives are better for our youth than incarceration. Research shows that community-based alternatives improve community safety and young people’s well-being, at a lower cost.

Los Angeles County has closed nine youth facilities since 2017 and redirected more than $60 million to programs operated by nonprofit organizations that have succeeded in reducing youth arrests by 30 percent and youth incarceration by 50 percent. The City and County of San Francisco is planning to close its sole juvenile hall and reinvest resources into community alternatives.

We need proven community-based alternatives to incarceration that we already know work better for our young people. These new approaches must be shaped by a commitment to do what is right for our young people, not what is expedient. We must remake the juvenile system into one that succeeds by recognizing the challenges they are facing, and that gives them the chance to succeed and grow into our next generation of leaders.

Community-based services produce better outcomes for youth, reduce recidivism, and cost less. Moving youth from large-scale state facilities to local county-run facilities will merely decentralize and multiply the current crisis. Youth who are struggling are best served through our health and human services infrastructure, not the justice system. Closing DJJ is about creating a new vision for the support and opportunities that our young people should have. That vision is best carried out through vigorous oversight by a state agency with expertise in health, youth development and restorative justice, sitting outside of the policing system.

We’ve done this before. The state employed a similar process when transforming the child welfare system in California by centralizing data collection and setting up state oversight of county-delivered services. We have examples of what this can look like.

The state must ensure that counties spend realignment dollars on effective community-based programs. The state agency selected to oversee DJJ realignment must be empowered to ensure resources are spent in a way that improves well-being for youth currently in the system, and safety for the community. This involves data collection, reporting, and establishing meaningful outcomes and measures of improvement, not simply tracking recidivism, but focusing on the building blocks of a successful life – housing, education, a good job, and connections to community and family.

We must make sure that we shift our focus from institutions to opportunities, and we believe that health, youth development and community connections, not institutionalization, is the path to healing. DJJ realignment should result in fewer young people behind bars. Instead of spending more of our public taxpayer dollars on warehousing children, let’s redirect them to community-based programs and institutions that will support the development of our youth.Such an investment envisions a California where our DJJ youth will not only have the opportunity to contribute to our tax base but will help us build safer and healthier communities for all.

Supporting our young people in their communities will mean reducing the footprint of a carceral system that takes them away from their homes and families. Cost savings from the closure of DJJ should result significant saving that counties should be required to spend on community-based alternatives to incarceration and the repurposing of existing buildings for youth development -- not the construction or expansion of secure facilities.

We’ve seen what happens when young people have a chance to heal from trauma, to lead, and to create a vision for the kind of world they, and we, all want to live in. We can help a new group of youth be a part of a new model of restorative justice. Ultimately, this is about our values as a state.

We must reduce the disparities in health and opportunity outcomes for our Black and Brown children. Every child should have the same chances for healing, rehabilitation and opportunity. We urge us all to make the ‘good trouble’ required for a meaningfully transformed juvenile justice system to be achieved.