Proposed Changes to Juvenile Justice System Generate Praise, Skepticism

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Advocates for juvenile justice reform are both optimistic and wary of a proposal to put the California Health and Human Services Agency in charge of the state’s juvenile justice system.

Last week, new California Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to work with the legislature on shifting the Division of Juvenile Justice from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the Health and Human Services Agency. He said the change would be part of restructuring juvenile detention in the state to focus on helping youth work through trauma and obtain educational and vocational skills, rather than punishing them.

“Today is the beginning of the end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it,” he said in a statement released by his office. “Juvenile justice should be about helping kids imagine and pursue new lives — not jumpstarting the revolving door of the criminal justice system.”

Around 660 youth are held in state-run juvenile detention facilities, a tiny fraction of California’s young offender population. Most juvenile offenders are detained in county-run facilities, or are placed on probation. State facilities tend to hold young people who’ve committed the most serious crimes and have significant medical and mental health needs.

Gov. Newsom’s proposal garnered mixed reactions from supporters of juvenile justice reform. While many cheered the governor’s initiative, some expressed skepticism, questioning how the change would be carried out and pointing to what they described as failed past attempts to improve the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said California has tried to overhaul its juvenile detention facilities numerous times but without much success. He pointed to reforms led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, which dissolved the much-criticized California Youth Authority and replaced it with the California Division of Juvenile Justice.

Despite the change, the system remains rife with violence and gang culture, and doesn’t adequately rehabilitate kids, Macallair said.

“The reality is you can’t really reform these institutions,” he said. “It’s a model that is inherently flawed. You can’t take a bunch of troubled kids from all over the state, force them together in a small place, and expect they’re going to be rehabilitated.”

Instead, California should put all juvenile offenders under county supervision, Macallair said. Keeping serious offenders in smaller, county juvenile halls would prevent them from mixing with other, potentially even more troubled kids, from other parts of the state, he said. These youth could then receive rehabilitative services in their own communities, stay close to their families and adults who can help them, and be better prepared to reenter society and the workforce, Macallair explained.

Angie Wolf, chief program officer with the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, agreed.

“If the services and facilities are nested in their own communities, they’d have more interaction with their parents and other folks that are likely to be available in their lives once they get out,” Wolf said. “All the evidence indicates that it’s much better to stay closer to home.”

Nevertheless, Wolf said she remains optimistic that the governor’s proposal will bring about real change. Part of that change would require re-training the workforce at state facilities to focus more on kids’ wellbeing and bolstering their resilience, she said. Many current practices in these institutions, such as handcuffing youth and making them wear jumpsuits, adds to trauma they’ve already suffered, she said.

Marlene Sanchez, associate director with the advocacy group Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, said she’s excited to see what comes from the governor’s proposal. Ideally, she said she’d like to see the state’s juvenile detention facilities shut down and reopened as rehabilitation centers where youth can pursue education and obtain mental health and drug treatment services in home-like settings. She pointed to Missouri’s juvenile detention system as a model.

Newsom’s proposal “will definitely be a shift in the right direction and we’re definitely proud of the governor’s move and his bold stance on this issue,” she said.

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