#YouthJusticeReimagined DJJ Watch Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment

Closing CA’s youth prisons the right way means adequately funding oversight of youth justice “realignment” to the counties

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Last fall, when Governor Newsom signed SB 823 into law in order to gradually close California’s long troubled and violent youth prison system, the bill was also designed as an historic reform measure intended to fundamentally transform the way that the state and its 58 counties approach youth justice.

Now,  starting next month, July 1, 2021, the state will begin to phase out the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) by halting all transfers of youth from California’s counties to the state’s three remaining youth lock-ups.

(DJJ also has a fire camp, but that reportedly will, for the moment, remain open as a facility that can train youth for a career in wild-land firefighting.)

Once the pipeline of transfers to DJJ is shut down, kids who previous would have been sent to the state perpetually violence and abuse-fraught facilities, will instead remain in local settings closer to their families and communities. In the case of Los Angeles kids and young adults, this means that youth who would have gone to DJJ, will spend time under the supervision of LA County Probation.

(How and in what sort of facility or facilities that time will be spent by the LA youth in question is another topic of discussion, that we are already tracking closely.  More on this issue in coming weeks and months.)

In order to provide oversight for this enormously consequential youth justice “realignment,” the law also mandated the creation of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, a new state entity that has theoretically been given the job of guiding the various counties in creating a system of care, supervision, healing, and rehabilitative programs for the youth who, in the past, would otherwise have been sent to the soon-to-be-closed state facilities.

(WitnessLA wrote about the creation of the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) last year right after the governor signed the critically important bill into law.)

Of course, making positive changes in government policy inevitably costs money.

To help with at least a part of the change that the shuttering of DJJ will bring about,  SB 823 also created a Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant program to provide the needed funds for the state’s 58 counties in order to finance this reimagined approach to youth justice.

And, of course, the OYCR must also be adequately funded if it is to function.

Herein lies the newest rub.

“In his May revised budget, the Governor now proposes only about $7 million for this office when we truly need an annual budget of at least $30 million,” wrote former Superior Court Judge, and longtime youth advocate, Jan Levine, in an email this week.

“Right now, the California Horse Racing Board is getting twice as much funding as the Governor proposes for the OYCR,” Levine said.

Terrific.

The struggle to close DJJ “the right way”

When the governor first announced his plan to get rid of DJJ, although youth advocates welcomed the general concept of doing away with the state’s chronically troubled and much loathed youth prisons, they also saw the potential for large complications.

For one thing, as UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap pointed out to WitnessLA following the Newsom’s  announcement, the state system had long existed “as an alternative for youth who had been involved in very serious crimes, but who are still under the age of eighteen,” to keep them out of the adult courts and adult prisons.  With it gone, Leap said, she feared that district attorneys would “push to file on lots more such kids in adult court.”

As it happened, Leaps fears were well founded.

“The day the governor announced he was going to close DJJ, district attorneys began pulling their offers  that kids would be able to stay in the juvenile system instead of going into the adult system, ”  said attorney Elizabeth Calvin, the senior advocate for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Right’s Watch,  “The day that the governor made the announcement!” she repeated.  “They felt, ‘Oh, DJJ isn’t going to exist? Then these youth need to be transferred to the adult system. ”

Youth advocates like herself, Calvin told WitnessLA, “realized that the closure had the potential to be “an unmitigated disaster –after all the progress we’ve made in the last four years, in reducing the number of kids who are transferred to adult court.”

Justice advocates also worried that, rather than promoting reform, with the closure, the state risked “simply shifting resources from one punitive system to another,” wrote Chet P. Hewitt and Shane Murphy Goldsmith in an August op-ed on the topic for WitnessLA.

Given the governor’s plans to move funding and oversight for youth justice to counties, the state must make absolutely certain that its investments transform the way counties treat youth in their care.”

Exactly.

(Goldsmith is president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation. Goldsmith and also sits on the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners. Hewitt is president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation.)

And then there is the matter of the the systemic racism that has been notoriously embedded in DJJ, where 93 percent of youth involved are youth of color.  This too needs urgently to be addressed at a county level — which requires competent data gathering and oversight, if anything is going to truly change.

Promises made

In short, California’s new Office of Youth and Community Restoration is a governmental entity that should already be gearing up to do its job of protecting tens of thousands of youth in a score or two of county facilities up and down the state.

The key duties of the OYCR, according to Elizabeth Calvin, include serving as an ombudsman, expanding local diversion opportunities, critical data reporting, and administering many millions in state funding [more on these funding streams soon], while doing all it can to make sure the various county facilities re-imagine youth justice, instead of just imprisoning kids locally.

“I get it,” Newsom said, before he actually signed the bill last fall.  “We’ve got to be vigilant, and make sure we do this right.  I just want everyone to know, we recognize that.  We know we have a lot of work to do together as we move forward.”

The  youth advocates like Levin, Leap, Calvin, and a long list of others, hope that Governor Newsom will make good on last year’s pre-signing promise– which includes allocating enough hard cash to actually keep that promise.

“The  Office of Youth and Community Restoration, was created to carry out SB 83’s bold mission by monitoring the counties’ Probation Departments Title 15 compliance and overseeing the counties’ separate plans to supervise these youth,” said Levine. “This oversight should play a critical role in assuring that these youth receive the kind of services and rehabilitation measures they, and their communities, deserve.”