How to Fix California’s Youth Prison Problem

by Zach Norris, Executive Director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Cofounder of Restore Oakland and Marlene Sanchez, Deputy Director at Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Illustration by Emma Li

As protests against police brutality and systemic racism continue to flare across the country, it’s more important than ever to reimagine our institutions — especially those that directly impact the next generation of Black and Latinx people. In the midst of protests and a pandemic, we face a historic moment that could reshape California’s punitive, ineffective and inhumane juvenile justice system to better serve youth, families and communities.

Governor Newsom’s proposal to close the state’s three remaining youth prisons and camp is part of his effort to balance a $54 billion deficit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a dramatic shift away from past budgets that refuse to cut spending on prisons despite decreased prison populations and falling crime rates. It’s also an opportunity to make real reform, but the path forward must include local and grassroots voices in order to avoid further harm to system-impacted youth.

Young people involved in the juvenile justice system should be kept as close as possible to their homes. Investments must be made in marginalized communities. The closure of DJJ provides an opportunity to do both. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s (CJJC) just released Blueprint for Reform: Moving Beyond California’s Youth Correctional System, the state should use cost-savings from the reduction, and ultimately closure, of DJJ facilities to invest in community-led alternatives to incarceration. The counties could use vacant space in local facilities to close the gap between the true cost of state confinement and the required county contribution.

Addressing the need for oversight, California should strengthen the local Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commissions, charged with helping ensure that young people are treated with basic human dignity and avoiding the abuses of the state prison system. San Francisco provides a good example — there they coupled strong county oversight with community-based organizations including Coleman Advocates for Youth, Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. This is the basic blueprint for the state — strong oversight and active empowered partnership from community groups based in communities of color, and led by people of color to every extent possible.

Finally, teens and young adults involved in the youth justice system need trauma-informed and healing-informed care closer to home. As budgets are re-written, California should be funding community-based interventions for young people. Many family members are told that their kids will get mental health services in these youth prisons, and for the hundreds of thousands of dollars we spend, youth prisons more often than not worsen mental health issues. In California, we look to organizations like Restore Oakland, Community Assessment and Referral Center, the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety and national organizations like Advance Peace, Common Justice and Alternative Rehabilitation Communities (ARC) who are providing community-based opportunities and helping families heal from police violence and harm caused by the prison pipeline.

Since 2001, the Ella Baker Center has highlighted the abuses of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to young people and their communities through the Books Not Bars campaign. We successfully closed five of California’s eight youth prisons, resulting in an 85% reduction in the youth prison population.

In cold numbers, it costs $300 million to maintain the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in Stockton, Pine Grove and Camarillo, California. It costs California nearly $300,000 per person, per year to confine teens and young adults. And yet, the DJJ’s failing approach to rehabilitation and safety results in 76 percent of youth being rearrested, 50 percent reconvicted of a new offense, and 29 percent returned to DJJ or a state prison within three years of release. So as we’re considering spending, and our country’s problem with police, know that national victim and taxpayer costs from recidivism due to youth incarceration would add collateral costs of $7.034 billion.

Teens and young adults are shipped off to state facilities as far as 500 miles away from their families. As a teenager, KD Dixon (currently an organizer with Legal Aid at Work) was taken seven hours away from her family for the five years she spent in the DJJ youth prisons, formerly known as the California Youth Authority. Her mom missed her entire adolescence, raising five kids as a single parent who couldn’t manage the high cost of visitation across such a far distance. While locked up, KD was forced to take psychotropic drugs by guards who bullied, taunted and instigated fights with her regularly. According to Dixon, it took her more than a decade to move past the violence and trauma she suffered from her experience.

For the next generation, California can do better and has the opportunity to do so.

The Ella Baker Center began in 1996 in response to the murder of Aaron Williams, an unarmed Black man, by a San Francisco Police officer. A year later, the police officer who killed Aaron Williams was fired. Decades after Aaron Williams’ murder, we continue to fight for a new model of community safety that we know will keep us safe.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights builds the power of black, brown, and poor people to break the cycles of incarceration and poverty.

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