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California Ramping Down State Youth Prisons Shows Power of Advocacy

November 30, 2020
Courtney McSwain & Sarah Natchipolsky

In September, California experienced a major shift in justice policy when its Governor Gavin Newsome signed SB 823, a bill that outlined a major overhaul of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Beginning July 1, 2021, the state will shift power and authority for youth corrections to California’s Department of Health and Human Services (CHHS) in a newly established Department of Youth and Community Restoration. Further, counties will now receive grant funds to take control of youth corrections, allowing young people to stay close to home and access family and community support. Counties will formulate their own plans to care for the needs of young people.

The move will lead to the gradual ramping down of the state’s youth prisons, which will not close entirely on July 1 of next year, but the pathway to sending a young person to a state facility will be strictly limited. “It’s kind of a bummer that we’re not really closing our youth prisons, we’re limiting the bed space. This option exists because some counties may feel that they don’t have the resources to automatically transition on July 1st,” said Miguel Garcia, Policy Coordinator at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), an NJJN member organization. 

Achieving the transition of corrections from DJJ to the health and human services was a huge win for youth justice advocates in California that required persistent and committed advocacy from a coalition of over 50 youth-serving organizations throughout the state. In 2019, Governor Newsome announced his intention to move DJJ from the California Department of Corrections, which oversees adult corrections, to the CHHS which was celebrated by the advocacy community. However, complications from another bill proposed by the probation department to increase its jurisdiction compounded by legislative delays due to Covid-19 resulted in a change in the Governor’s tenor. In the spring, he announced a new proposal to leave DJJ within the adult corrections department with oversight of probation. Advocates throughout the state immediately went into action to push back and get the move of youth corrections to CHHS back on the table.

The California Alliance for Youth & Community Justice (CAYCJ) got all of California’s youth advocates on the same page to respond together in unison,” Garcia said. CAYCJ is also a member of NJJN. “If we didn’t all work together, the governor was going to write a $300 million blank check to probation that would increase salaries and benefits, reboot empty juvenile haps and not really include community - which is what we’ve seen through other block grants similar to this.”

With limited ability to advocate in person due to Covid-19 restrictions, organizations relied on using Zoom and Skype to meet with legislators to push for changes. “Normally we would show up and walk the halls visiting every legislative office in one day,” Garcia said. “Everyone was brand new to Zoom and it was hard to tie legislators down to meet with them, but we all worked and made sure we were representing. Most of us [in the coalition] have different approaches to the work we do, but we all got together - which was a real testament of what we were able to accomplish.”

The CAYCJ-led coalition, which includes NJJN members ARC and the Youth Justice Coalition, successfully pushed for the transition of DJJ to CHSS and the creation of an ombudsman to oversee the transition. A critical point was the creation of county-level committees with at least three seats for community and directly impacted representation to oversee the local design of youth corrections plans and decide how money is spent.

Garcia said that the state will allocate $200 million for counties to create and update their youth justice programs. However, only $9.6 million is reserved for renovations to county facilities for the entire state. Garcia said he is not confident that this will be enough to cover construction costs, and that several counties need significant structural updates to their facilities. Moving forward, California advocates, including NJJN members, will focus on revisiting some of the compromises that were made to get SB 823 as well as educating counties on the need for creativity and heavily involving community in their youth corrections plans.

“It’s important that counties immerse these institutions with the community. Young people are now going to be closer to their own communities, so it’s important for them to know the resources that are available,” Garcia said. “It’s going to take a lot of creativity from the community to help design a functioning alternative to DJJ at a local base. I look forward to advocates speaking up and reimagining youth justice with a bolder perspective.”

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To learn more about California youth justice advocacy, visit our NJJN California members online and check out the work of the California Alliance for Youth & Community Justice.

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