Closing the State’s Youth Prison System

New California Legislation Reflects Four Decades of Advocacy by Commonweal 

by David Steinhart, Director, Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program

Under legislation signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in September, the California state youth prison system will close all its remaining facilities. The new law—Senate Bill 823—stops intake at the state Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) by July of 2021. Full shutdown is likely to come in 2024 when all currently confined youth complete their state sentences. Going forward, counties will inherit full responsibility for the care and supervision of youth who can no longer be committed to the custody of the state. 

The closure bill caps a long downward trend for the DJJ. In 2007, lawmakers banned most DJJ commitments in the wake of lawsuits, rising costs, and high recidivism rates. A troubling feature of the state youth prison system has always been that youth of color make up nearly 90 percent of the state custody population. Multiple juvenile justice reforms in California in recent years have sought to address this disparity while mandating upgrades in trauma informed care, conditions of confinement, access to education, record sealing and other areas. These reforms, combined with steep drops in youth crime rates, have driven the inmate population of DJJ from all time high of 10,000 (in 1996) to fewer than 800 youth today.

California Youth Authority “Cages” Used to Hold Youth (circa the 1980s and 1990s)

The closure of DJJ is a significant milestone for Commonweal. For nearly 40 years, Commonweal has been active at the state level as a prime advocate of youth prison reforms. Our advocacy traces back to 1982 when Commonweal published The CYA Report—Conditions of Life at the California Youth Authority, written by Steve Lerner. Lerner’s book documented a culture of institutional violence spread across 11 large, state-run youth facilities—including gang fights and even muggings of new inmates as they lay sleeping at night. Three subsequent Commonweal reports laid out an agenda for a more humane approach including reduced commitment rates and shorter stays in confinement. In 2007, Juvenile Justice Program Director David Steinhart played a key role helping lawmakers draft and implement a landmark reform that sharply reduced commitments to the state system while providing state funds to counties for local services to “realigned” youth.

Senate bill 823 will now end the state’s costly and controversial role in the operation of prison-like institutions for youth. Here, in brief, is what the legislation does:

  • Phased shutdown. As of July 1, 2021, courts will no longer be able to commit a youth to the state Division of Juvenile Justice. However, intake will remain open for a small number of youth—those having petitions filed to transfer them to the jurisdiction of the adult criminal court. Currently housed youth will finish their terms in DJJ, with the population expected to zero out sometime in 2024. 
  • Pays counties to handle the realigned caseload. The bill creates a Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant, rising over time to a value of more than $200 million per year to counties to support local facilities, supervision and services for youth who can no longer be committed to DJJ. Counties must engage community-based organizations in the development of local realignment plans to qualify for these state funds.
  • Creates an Office of Youth and Community Restoration in HHS. The new HHS office includes an ombudsman branch authorized to investigate and resolve allegations of abuse or violations occurring in county juvenile facilities or programs. The OYCR will also, starting in 2025, take over all state juvenile justice grants now administered by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC).
  • Includes safeguards against transfer of DJJ youth to adult courts and state prisons. 
    By definition, youth who can now be committed to DJJ are also eligible for transfer to the adult criminal system and state prison sentences. SB 823 includes safeguards against increased transfers to the adult system in the wake of DJJ shutdown. The bill raises the age at which youth can continue to be confined in local juvenile facilities (to age 25). SB 823 also includes intent language to adopt a new, local “secure commitment track” for youth at the highest needs and offense levels, viewed as necessary to provide a credible juvenile justice sentencing alternative to the transfer of youth into the adult system.
  • Requires the Dept. of Justice to produce a data plan, by January 2023, to replace the state’s badly outmoded juvenile justice data bank. Commonweal has long advocated the need to upgrade this critical information system that tracks local arrest, prosecution, court and confinement data. SB 823 provides long-awaited momentum to plan for a modern data system.

A rough ride through the Legislature. The passage of SB 823 was no easy task. The DJJ closure bill won approval in the state Senate by a single vote, less than an hour before the midnight clock expired on the 2020 session of Legislature. Counties and probation departments fought hard to defeat the measure, claiming it was rushed through the process and that it failed to address county funding and program needs to deal with serious juvenile offenders. Nevertheless, opponents could not derail the accord reached between legislators, the Governor and reform advocates on the terms of DJJ closure that are now embodied in SB 823

Challenges ahead. The compromise encompassed by SB 823 is, by wide agreement, one that will need work on the implementation side. The local “secure track” that is the main wall of protection against transfers of realigned youth to adult courts and prisons will need to be restored, after it was set aside from the final version of SB 823 in late-stage negotiations. The new HHS Office of Youth and Community Restoration will need to be staffed and up and running in time to take on its new youth justice system oversight responsibilities. Most importantly, the hostility toward DJJ closure exhibited by county and probation lobbying groups will need to subside and translate into a pro-active effort to develop the local program and facility capacity needed to accommodate youth who can no longer be committed to the custody of the state. 

Meanwhile, the passage of SB 823 is aptly described as a historic event in the long history of juvenile justice reform in California. Commonweal can be justly proud of the contributions it has made over nearly four decades to a successful juvenile justice reform track record, including a direct hand in working with lawmakers, the Governor’s office and advocacy groups in the design and adoption of Senate Bill 823. We recognize, as well, that the work is not finished, and we remain committed to collaboration with policy makers and advocacy colleagues to ensure that youth will be well served in the newly realigned and reconfigured California youth justice system.

Find out more about Commonweal’s Juvenile Justice Program on their website.