Bill Watch DJJ Watch

Governor Signs Bill to Close State’s Troubled & Systemically Racist Youth Prisons With an Ambitious Plan to Reimagine CA’s Youth Justice System

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

At approximately 4:42 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, September 30, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 823, a budget trailer bill that will lead to the closure of the state’s troubled and violent youth prison system.

Yet the bill is far more than that.  It is also is designed as an historic reform measure intended to fundamentally transform the way that the state and its 58 counties approach youth justice.

Furthermore, the bill includes the creation of a new state office, which justice advocates believe will be able to kick-start real reform.

Here are the basics of what SB 823 is designed to accomplish.

First, starting 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 will 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 next summer, kids who previous would have been sent to the state facilities, will instead remain in local settings closer to their families and communities.  In the case of Los Angeles kids, this means kids who would have gone to DJJ, will spend time under the supervision of LA County Probation.

In order to provide oversight for this youth justice “realignment,” the law also mandates the creation of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, a new state entity that will have 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.

And finally, the bill creates 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.

The budget factor

The need for SB 823 was triggered, on May 14 of this year, when the governor unexpectedly announced a new plan to close DJJ, as part of a budget cutting strategy necessitated by the state’s suddenly COVID-diminished cash flow.

The May plan to gradually shutter DJJ, however,  was precipitated by an earlier plan Newsom had announced in January 2019,  which would have moved DJJ away from the state’s adult prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which presently oversees the division. DJJ would then be rehoused under the more rehabilitative-leaning California Health and Human Services Agency.  The move, Newsom said at the time, would mark “the beginning of the end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it.”

While youth advocates praised the governor’s intentions, in reality not much of substance happened last year regarding the proposed move and the reform that was theoretically to follow.

Then the pandemic struck causing budgetary nightmares for every state in the union, California included.  Thus, in the mayor’s office, it suddenly became far more fiscally attractive to simply phase out the whole youth prison system altogether, rather than just moving it on paper, as a first step in somehow rethinking the model.

Shutting down 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 appeared to be 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.”

(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 was the matter of the the systemic racism that was notoriously embedded in DJJ, where 93 percent of youth involved are youth of color.

In reaction to the the probability of a DJJ shut down, in August, justice policy experts Laura Ridolfi, W. from the Haywood Burns Institute, Renée Menart, from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and Israel Villa, from the California Alliance of Youth and Community Justice, published a report, which quantified the “stark racial and geographic disparity in how young men and women are treated who have committed similar crimes,” in California’s juvenile justice system in general, and in DJJ  in particular.

“Over the years, DJJ has experienced cycles of public scandal and outcry, followed by failed reform attempts,” they wrote. “These repeated efforts have not addressed the damaging consequences of youth incarceration that continue to disparately impact youth of color.”

The bottom line:  in closing the state’s youth prisons, the state’s advocates collectively concluded, California and its counties must “Do it right,” or risk multiple forms of unanticipated collateral damage.

And a part of “doing it right,” said advocates, meant finding a way to reduce these corrosive racial disparities, “not deepen them.”

Enter the OYCR

Those who helped with the formation of the bill, came to believe that the key to “doing it right” was the creation of  the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR), an oversight body that would supervise this new “realignment” of the state’s justice system-impacted youth from the state to the counties.

According to the bill, the OYCR (which will exist under the California Health and Human Services Agency) will be tasked with guiding the creation of a reimagined approach to youth justice in each of the counties, as an integral part of doing away with DJJ.

Of course, the mere creation of an oversight entity would mean little if that entity didn’t have some form of power that would serve as both carrot and stick in order to motivate county agencies to engage in real change and reform.

Thus to help the OYCR persuade California’s counties to go along with the transformative new direction that the bill mandates, SB 823 has given the OYCR the power of the purse.

Block grants and funding streams

Here’s how it works.

As mentioned above, if the state intended to transfer the responsibility for the youth who now end up in DJJ back to the California’s 58 counties, obviously the state would have to fork over enough funding to allow the counties to do the job.

That was a given.

Yet according to the newly signed bill,  the funds from this new “Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant” program, would not be just be handed over to each one of the counties in amounts based on some kind of algorithm.    Now, under SB 843, this new pile of state cash will be overseen by the new OYCR.  This means,  that each county that wants to get a slice of the newly created pile of dollars from the state, will have to hit certain marks to the satisfaction of the new OYCR

Then the bill went one big step farther.

In addition to giving the OYCR control over the new block grants,SB 843 mandates that the OYCR will also oversee most of California’s existing juvenile justice grants, both state and federal, all of which are presently controlled by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which is not known for its rigorous oversight of how those state controlled funds are used. (Basically, there’s no oversight.)

Under this new plan, however,  no state controlled juvenile justice grants will be awarded by the Board of State and Community Corrections “without the concurrence of the OYCR,” according to the bill.

The fact that the OYCR, will control purse strings for both California’s old and new juvenile justice funding streams is one of the truly game-changing elements in the bill, that advocates are calling a “historic opportunity to advance racial equity and transform the youth justice system.”

Oh, and there is one more important move, SB 823 requires the California Department of Justice to get its act together when it comes to youth justice data.  Specifically, the CA DOJ  must “submit a plan by January 2023″ to improve and modernize a statewide system of juvenile justice data collection and reporting — which will hopefully allow everyone to see what is working and what isn’t when it comes to youth justice programming in California.

There is a visionary aspect to SB 823 that is very exciting,” said Elizabeth Calvin.  “It has the potential to completely and forever transform juvenile justice in California.

“This new law is a tremendous and beautiful step in the direction in really putting a focus on healing for the youth who are system involved.”  said Calvin. “And there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure it works as it supposed to. Lots of fine tuning ahead.”

And there is the fact that not everyone involved with the state’s youth justice system is equally enthusiastic about the bill.

Pushback and signing

While justice advocates from around the state cheered the signing of SB 823, a coalition of other state groups was not delighted with the creation of the new and powerful OYCR at all.

The coalition, made up by the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC), the County Behavioral Health Directors Association (CBHDA),  the Urban Counties of California (UCC), and the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), objected to the bill’s strategy of moving control “of critical funding streams for counties to the purview of a new state office,” which the coalition said would “disrupt the flow of services for youth, jeopardizing long-standing, successful programs proven to help the youth we serve.”

The bill, creates “a structure that will harm our ability to implement responsive services to rehabilitate youth, and further hurt the positive and trauma-informed work already being done at the local level for the vast majority of youth in the justice system,” said Karen Pank, Executive Director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

In general, it seems, the coalition members were not at all pleased about the oversight piece of the puzzle.

Objections notwithstanding, the governor looked unusually cheerful as he signed SB 823 on an unusual public-facing ZOOM call that also served as a celebratory gathering for justice advocates, state senators, which included state Senators Nancy Skinner and Steven Bradford, and others who had been working like crazy  to get this bill, and another youth justice bill, SB 203, through the state legislature before August 31, the final day for California lawmakers to get bills passed and onto Newsom’s desk.

“It is monumental for youth justice in California,” said Skinner of SB 823.

Elizabeth Calvin was also on the call, as was Frankie Guzman, the director of the Youth Justice Initiative at National Center for Youth Law, who didn’t speak on the ZOOM call, but had done plenty of tweeting about SB 823, pre-signing.

“At the local level,” he tweeted of the changes the bill would bring, kids could receive community-based services that better meet their needs, instead of the current system of ‘punishment and control.’

As it happens, Guzman has some authority on the matter in that, after a childhood laced with trauma and tragedy, he committed some crimes that were serious enough that they got him sentenced to DJJ, during the years when it was called the California Youth Authority (CYA).  Now Guzman is an award-winning juvenile justice lawyer, who graduated first from U.C. Berkeley, then UCLA law school.

“I get it,” Newsom said, before he actually signed the bill.  “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.”

And in the spirit of moving forward, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 823 into law.


  • My God, these politicians and advocates have never had to deal with these “kids”. Many are adults that have murdered, raped, have a history of assaulting and robbing their victims (many who happen to be people of color, btw).

  • That’s a great “compared to white youth…” couple of charts.

    Let me ask…compared to white youth how many times are black-Hispanic youth more likely to commit violent crime?

    Is it at all possible that number is several times higher and probably why they are X times more likely to be dealt with as such?

    Asking for a friend.

  • Come talk to me when you’ve actually worked in the facilities! “Troubled and systematically racist”????? Same dumb a$$e$ that bro ng crayons n charts about disproportionate minority contact. News flash…brown populated cities (Santa Ana, anaheim, Fullerton,etc) higher brown crime. Asian populated cities (Westminster, Irvine,etc) Higher Asian crime. South Orange County higher white crime. The few black crimes are LA CO. Transplants or did the crime in oc. Don’t say a f*kin word until you have to deal with these “kids” (12-21 and 25 yrs very soon) and b*tch about being robbed, car jacked or home invaded. Not all and I’m better off saying only some officers are bad…no different then you sitting in your Office with AC and mad that your boss just embezzled money or didn’t shut down a hair salon to get a haircut…come work a day with the boots on the ground and don’t cry when your violated first what you thought was right (only for political reasons). Be careful with your words and I’ll be careful with mine!

  • These liberals take tours and act like they know what the hell is going on inside these institutions afterward like they’re experts. LOL

    I used to give tours in the jails and tell these folks what really goes on. Some actually looked at me and said they didn’t believe it. Those were the ones that got to see videos, and on some occasions, actual fights and/or riots. Ah, yes, they became instant believers.

  • We it is apparent that this report does not have all the facts ….let me ask you ? What does the plan look like ? There isnt a mention of a viable plan just speculation that the kids will be managed in the local counties…let me say this …DJJ is already managing the kids that the counties cant hand and is very successful with it …so why would you shut down a system currently in place for no system..This insane …not to mention the extra money that will be involved trying do out source these services for these kids in an already depleted county system…it just doesnt make sense…again your bashing DJJ without knowing the facts or really understanding what goes on there.. my guess you never worked there or spent real time there .. so write about what you do know…because if definetly not this subject …

  • The reason being …look at the adult stats …65% of Latinos are incarcerated…difference in there stats my guess …

  • Thank you thank you …the real boots on the ground hear you …thank you we hear you thank you for speaking for us all

  • I am familiar with a particular juvenile case. The minor was 14 and committed a cold blooded murder with a gun (shot victim in the head) to steal a few hundred dollars. He had committed a robbery a few days before and other crimes before that for which he received court intervention/probation. But he cannot be transferred to adult court since he was 14. And now DJJ is closing. What is the victim’s mother to be told about this murderer? That he can do a little time in local juvenile hall or a year in a group home with no other consequence?

  • The CYA sucked. I worked there for 13 years. They often put the wards in the box, sometimes for years. Run by cruel, punishment motivated people who cared little for rehabilitation. Glad to see it go.

  • The CYA sucked. I worked there for 13 years. They often put the wards in the box, sometimes for years. Run by cruel, punishment motivated people who cared little for rehabilitation. Glad to see it go.

  • My son was shot right in front of our home while waiting for his ride to go to work. He was shot 6 times. Our home was shot bullets breaking our windows, my vehicle and our elderly neighbor who lives next to us a bullet went through her house of dwelling. My son isn’t a gang member just a kid who actvielty played sports.. Now I’m being told the 17 yr old. Is basically gonna get a slap on the wrist with probation where is justice? My son will forever be affected by this emotionally and physically. SMH!! OUTRAGED PARENT.

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