New state law puts California’s Juvenile Justice System at a crossroads | Quick Guide

October 11, 2021

Entrance to a shared site of the state-run O.H. Close and N.A. Chaderjian state youth facilities.

California’s juvenile justice system is at a crossroads. Its state-run youth prisons are shutting down in less than two years, and counties are now barred from sending any of their young people to those prisons, the result of Senate Bill 823, state legislation signed into law last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Hundreds of young people are incarcerated each year in both state and county facilities by juvenile court order. In recent years, the state has incarcerated about 700 young people on average per year.

1. What is Senate Bill 823?

Senate Bill 823 requires the state’s youth prisons to shut down by June 30, 2023, and stopped allowing counties to send youth to the state Department of Juvenile Justice as of July 1, 2021.

Now, the state’s 58 counties must each designate a local facility for the incarceration of young people who, prior to this year, would have been sent to a state youth prison.

2. Who is incarcerated at California youth prisons?

The youth prisons house young people between 13 and 25 years old who are adjudicated in the state’s juvenile court system. The average age of youth in state correctional facilities is 19. A disproportionate majority, 88% in 2020, are Black and Latino, and the largest number is typically sent from L.A. County.

Until SB 823, the system operated like this: Young people charged with lower-level crimes remained in county facilities. Those found guilty of serious or violent offenses were typically transferred to a state facility. A serious or violent offense could include burglary, assault, homicide and other crimes.

Starting last July 1, all youth charged in the juvenile justice system will remain in county facilities.  The state prison will continue to house youths completing their sentences, and those facilities will close by 2023.

3. How many young people are incarcerated in California?

State youth prisons house dramatically fewer youth largely due to steep declines in arrests and changes in state law that have limited how many youth could be confined in state institutions.  At its peak in 1996, the state incarcerated about 10,000 young people across 11 facilities. By last June 30, a total of 677 young people were incarcerated across four facilities. From 1996 to 2017, there was a 77% drop in juvenile felony arrests including steep drops in violent offense arrests, according to a 2019 report by the Center on California Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit.

As a result, the state’s youth prison system consists of 1,000 staffers and four aging facilities to serve a youth population of 677. That translates to a per youth cost of over $300,000 per year. “In total, California spends $200 million each year to preserve an antiquated system that is operating at less than 40 percent of its capacity,” concludes the report, “Unmet Promises: Continued Violence & Neglect in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice.”

And while arrests are low, recidivism rates remain high, according to Renee Menart, communications and policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “So fewer youth are coming into the system, but those that do enter the system are still experiencing rearrest and reconviction rates at high levels,” she said.

4. Why is there a push to reform the juvenile justice system in the state?

Reformers for years have decried the state prisons as subjecting generations of California youth committed to them to “inhumane conditions and lasting trauma,” according to the 2019 report. Most are incarcerated after sentencing. Some are held while awaiting sentences.

The 2019 report described an increase in use-of-force rates and isolation time as a means of responding to violence among youth.

“By placing youth in prisonlike conditions at large institutions, DJJ exposes them to the trauma of incarceration, risking their immediate safety and limiting the possibility of rehabilitation,” wrote the report’s authors. “In addition … many youth involved in the justice system have already experienced trauma during their childhood. The trauma of confinement compounds over the months and years that youth spend in this restrictive institutional setting.”

Others question whether youths should be confined, pointing to developments in brain science research on the fundamental differences between the minds of young people and adults that have been cited in crucial legal cases. One such case was a 2010 Supreme Court decision that ruled a life imprisonment sentence without parole for nonhomicide offenses committed by adolescents is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual.”

“Parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court opinion.

“Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults,” he continued.

5. How many youth prisons does the state of California currently operate?

The state currently runs four facilities:

6. Who is sent to those facilities and how will that change under Senate Bill 823?

Young people incarcerated at one of the state facilities have been sentenced for committing serious or violent offenses, such as assault and burglary. Under SB 823, youths convicted of the same charges will serve their sentences in county facilities.

7. What is the timeline for switching these young people from state to county facilities?

The state facilities will close by June 30, 2023.  The Pine Grove Conservation Camp will remain open and continue to function as a “fire camp,” as it is known, where young men ages 18 to 24 fight fires, clear brush and perform other such wilderness duties. Starting last July 1, all young people entering the juvenile justice system are held at the county level. The only young people held in state youth prisons are those who were sentenced prior to July 1.

6. What education exists for young people who are incarcerated at state prisons?

The Department of Juvenile Justice offers high school, vocational and community college courses. Each of the three correctional facilities run by the state has a high school.

Test results, however, offer insight into the level of achievement that youth are able to attain while incarcerated.

In 2018, none of the 11th grade students at the state’s three correctional facilities scored at grade level in math on the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment, according to data from the California Department of Education. And in reading, just 8% of students at N.A. Chaderjian’s high school, 3% at the O.H. Close’s  high school, and 3% at Ventura’s high school scored at grade level.

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