Credit: Josie Lepe
Katherine Lucero, director of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration at the California Health and Human Services Agency.

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Judge Katherine Lucero is tasked with leading California’s massive transformation of its juvenile justice system by June 2023, a change prompted by the signing of Senate Bill 823 in 2020. The state’s Division of Juvenile Justice will effectively shut down, and any youth who would have previously been sent to one of its four facilities will now be placed in juvenile facilities within their own counties. There are about 600 young men and women currently housed across the state’s four facilities.

Late last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Lucero as the director of the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which was created by SB 823. Lucero is the daughter of farmworkers who has experience as a juvenile dependency court commissioner and most recently as Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge for 20 years. This is a full-time position that pays $194,868 a year. The new office is headquartered in Sacramento.

Known as OYCR, the office is housed within California’s Health and Human Services Agency, rather than the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a move that signals its new goals and emphasis on taking a more holistic approach to rehabilitating the youth in its custody.

The new office is charged with the rehabilitation of young people between 13 and 25 years old who have historically been adjudicated in the state’s juvenile court system. They have been adjudicated for serious or violent offenses, which could include burglary, assault, homicide and other crimes.

The average age of youth in state correctional facilities is 19, with a disproportionate majority, 88% in 2020, identifying as Black and Latino.

This interview with Lucero has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How has your career prepared you to lead this shift with SB 823?

We believe that all youth deserve to be treated fairly, that all youth deserve to get back on track and have the support they need to get back on track — even those youth who have committed the most violent crimes. I’ve seen the beginning to the end, so to speak, with the kids, from being on the bench in both the child welfare courts and in the juvenile justice court.

I’ve read thousands of files … and I can say that youth who commit violent crimes, a majority of them have been known to the child welfare system. If not fully petitioned, at least there had been many, many red flags that these children and their families needed robust interventions that were healing-based and trauma-based. Our youth who are in the juvenile justice system easily can count off many of the adverse childhood experiences on the ACEs assessment in all forms: family violence, community violence, the violence that comes from living in poverty, having parents incarcerated, the emotional and psychological toll that that takes on our youth.

The shift that’s necessary is one that fully embraces the role that all of our government entities have played in the life of the child offender and provides a pathway home and healing that allows children to become the best version of themselves. … No person should be forever labeled and made to pay for something that occurred when they were in a full adolescent development phase of their lives. Terrible mistakes can be made, and terrible mistakes can be rectified.

How is your team preparing to support counties when it comes to meeting young people’s educational needs while in custody?

I rarely saw a child in my court in custody if they were engaged, enrolled and attending school, so I am acutely aware of that need for us to support counties to get kids back to school. Many of the kids that I saw were not in school predating their juvenile offenses for weeks, months, and sometimes years. I was always in shock if I had a 15-year-old who hadn’t been to school in two years. I just thought — how did this happen?

So how do we engage with counties? We provide technical assistance. We make sure that there’s training available for every county, for every probation chief, every district attorney, and every public defender around how to make sure that our kids are getting great educational experiences in custody, and then getting that bridge back to their either mainstream schools or alternative schools, if necessary.

I want every youth and their family to understand the educational rights of their child and, if necessary, I want every youth to have access to an education rights attorney so that we can make sure that the youth are getting their maximum rights in the school setting.

Every county in the state has submitted a plan for how they intend to support young people who, prior to SB 823, would have been transferred to a state Division of Juvenile Justice facility. What are you and your team looking for in each county plan as you review them?

First, we’re looking at collecting some baseline data, looking at what kinds of programming are in place or that they have plans to be in place. Second, we’re looking for areas where counties excel and where they may benefit from some types of technical assistance.

OYCR wants to be kind of the clearinghouse for that. We plan to have county liaisons and I want each county liaison to have that training and the ability to advise the county. If the liaisons come to the county and the county has a weakness, say in education or in data collection, I want us to be able to support that county and make sure that they feel that they have everything they need to do what they need to do to make sure that the youth are successful.

We’re going to have kids in their communities, and we’re going to transition them back welcomed and healed and forgiven because that’s how we’re going to lead it.

The law setting up this new office carries annual funding of $7.6 million. There’s also a one-time funding influx of about $27 million. Is that enough to do the job?

I think it’s a matter of working smarter and being organized and looking at OYCR as an umbrella organization to bring together the best minds who can identify resources that in so many ways already exist, but maybe need to be funneled differently. 

I’m looking to hire a chief health policy director because I want to look at: How can we use mental health dollars? How can we use Title IV-E dollars? How can we look at the Families First Services Prevention Act and the AB 2083 mandates to really start digging around and blending and braiding funding and delivering ways for counties to access resources? I don’t think a pot of money really solves problems. I think what solves problems is people putting their heads together, looking at the individual child, what the individual child needs, what the counties need, and then trying to match resources to the needs.

The county plans, as they currently stand, vary quite a bit. How are you managing the variations as you work to create standard guidelines?

We’re designing regional approaches. We will have county liaisons, and we’re trying to tailor our technical assistance to the needs and culture of each county. We plan to have the county liaisons work closely with the county stakeholders, all of them: probation, social services, mental health, behavioral health, youth advocates, education providers.

There are challenges. On the ground, you know, with the 58 counties, there are political issues. But we are looking at providing this kind of high-level leadership with policy and with best practices and then where we have to tackle individual county barriers and issues, we certainly will. And then we’ll work with as many stakeholder partners as possible to make sure that the youth are not impacted by any of the political barriers or the political climate of any particular county. My focus is on how to make sure that those kids are cared for and that we don’t lose track.

There are fears that the challenges DJJ has faced — and the large institutional system under which DJJ functions — might be replicated at the county level once DJJ facilities are fully shuttered next year. In what ways are you and your team working to ensure that county facilities remain committed to the intent of SB 823?

We will be having an ombuds office. If there are issues where youth are feeling that they need our ombuds to come in and resolve complaints, there’s that very individualized concern that our youth are cared for and in a therapeutic and healing environment. The family is also able to use the ombuds division.

But more than that, we are going to be involved in revamping the regulations for the facility. OYCR has to engage and concur in the regulations that will be overseeing the facilities. We’re also going to be concurring with some of the grant-making.

There will not be an ability to default back to a DJJ atmosphere, which was large numbers of youth in congregate care, in kind of an institutional setting. The research and data, none of it says that that’s good for kids. It’s harmful. These kids will be close to home. I’m hoping that they will see their family many times a week, that they’ll have access even to their own children, if they are parenting, or if they have children on the way. I’m sure that folks are afraid, but this is a transformation that’s occurring.

We’re not going to be having kids placed far away from their families in congregate care and forgotten. We’re going to have kids in their communities, and we’re going to transition them back welcomed and healed and forgiven because that’s how we’re going to lead it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I just want us to all remember that these are kids, that they committed the offenses under the age of 18, and we don’t have any information that says keeping them incarcerated for years and years is helpful to either the child or the community. We really do need to look at what is the information that we have that allows a child to heal from a very traumatic event.

How do we make sure that our communities are healed, but how do we also make sure that that youth can come back into society safely, and how can we give that youth a second chance? Because if there’s anybody on the planet, any person on the planet that made an awful mistake that deserves a second chance, it’s a child. I just want us to really embrace that concept and figure out how to move forward together in that regard.

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  1. Kelly Arbor 7 months ago7 months ago

    What an excellent interview. As a teacher within a juvenile hall, I can tell you that having access to high quality education with compassionate teachers makes a huge difference for students. My main worry is that we don't have post-secondary opportunities opening up yet; the local community college has yet to offer classes for our increasing number of graduates. Since a number of them will be here in the county facility until … Read More

    What an excellent interview. As a teacher within a juvenile hall, I can tell you that having access to high quality education with compassionate teachers makes a huge difference for students. My main worry is that we don’t have post-secondary opportunities opening up yet; the local community college has yet to offer classes for our increasing number of graduates. Since a number of them will be here in the county facility until age 25, it is essential that all incarcerated youth have either in-person or remote access to college or other post-secondary career training. Perhaps community colleges need to be compelled to offer at least a few courses to our graduates, since they won’t necessarily provide that opportunity voluntarily.

    Replies

    • Kirsten 3 months ago3 months ago

      Kelly,

      This may be much easier in some counties. There has been a huge push to offer CC courses online so that students in brick-and-mortar schools have access to them during the school day … which means they are building the capacity to offer many courses online. If you are in Sacramento County let me know, I can put you in touch!