Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to make big changes to California’s juvenile justice system, but some advocates are skeptical.
The governor announced this week that he wants to “end juvenile imprisonment in California as we know it” by moving the Division of Juvenile Justice out of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and into the California Health and Human Services Agency.
The division expects to oversee 759 youth this year, according to the governor’s office. That number is down substantially from a decade ago, due in part to a reduction in youth arrests and a shift of juvenile justice responsibilities to counties. Youth who remain in the state’s care are housed between three correctional facilities and one camp.
The state has been gradually making improvements to the system over the last decade. In 2003, a major lawsuit claimed juvenile justice staff failed to provide youth with adequate medical care and rehabilitation. The case was terminated after the state limited use of force and increased educational opportunities in facilities, among other changes.
Still, the state’s detention centers are plagued by a “culture of violence,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He said moving the division into a new department won’t fix these longstanding problems.
“The daily experiences of kids are going to remain the same,” he said. “I don’t know what they hope to accomplish, but if they think that this will result in a more rehabilitative environment because it’s under a different state agency … it’s just not realistic.”
The governor has not provided specifics about the future of the three state institutions or about staffing changes. His budget proposal includes $2 million for 40 half-time AmeriCorps members to assist youth released from incarceration.
Chuck Supple, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice, said moving youth over to Health and Human Services should give them better access to rehabilitation programs. He did not comment on specific changes in the facilities.
“My hunch is that, when the systems are connected to agencies that have an emphasis on health, healing and a connection to resources that can assist in that, that perhaps they are able to do a better job,” he said.
He said the majority of states house their juvenile justice systems under a health agency or in a standalone department.
David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and former chief probation officer for Alameda County, said the shift in departments could mean fewer guards being laterally transferred from adults prisons into juvenile detention facilities. He’s also optimistic about Newsom’s choice to hire Dr. Nadine Burke Harris as the state’s first-ever surgeon general. Burke Harris is a renowned expert on childhood trauma and rehabilitation.
But he said advocates will have to be vigilant to make sure the plan is “not just simply a change in the letterhead and no change in the way the department is administered.”
“They might be the same buildings in the same locations,” he said. “But under a new administration, a new focus, a new purpose, could mean a lot,” he said.
Macallair said a better solution would be to eradicate state-run juvenile justice altogether and put the youth in the hands of counties. A recent report from his organization shows county-run juvenile halls, camps and ranches are operating well below capacity.
Some advocates have argued for years that county services are preferable to the state system because they offer smaller settings and proximity to their own communities. Muhammad said that might be true, but there are added complications to that plan because not all county facilities are set up to handle the challenging long-term cases in the state system.
Newsom says he wants to create more opportunities for youth once they’re released. During his first weeks in office, he visited a juvenile justice hall in Stockton to highlight a computer coding apprenticeship program that helps prepare youth for careers.
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