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State Juvenile Justice Facilities Are Failing Kids, Report Finds

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Entrance to shared site of DJJ’s secluded O.H. Close and Chad facilities in Stockton. (Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice)

For 12 years, California's juvenile justice facilities were overseen by a court monitor — the result of a lawsuit aimed at ending the culture of violence, including staff abuse and frequent suicides, at the state's correctional institutions.

But now, three years after that oversight ended — and despite assurances "that the state was entering a new era of rehabilitative treatment" — a new report finds the 600 young men and women housed in the four Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities in California are still being exposed to "violent" and "inhumane" conditions, where fights and riots are a part of daily life and lead to lasting trauma.

A graph of violent incidents per 100 kids, according to the report. (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

The 102-page report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice concludes that this culture is "concealed by an absence of state oversight," as well as the isolated locations of the facilities, compared to where the youths' families live.

"In the three years since court monitoring ended, DJJ has returned to its historical state of poor conditions, a punitive staff culture and inescapable violence," says the report.

The state is also spending an exorbitant amount of money — about $300,000 per kid annually — to run these institutions, which housed 10,000 young people 20 years ago, but now are drastically under capacity. The majority of DJJ youths are 17- to 19-year-olds with assault or robbery convictions.

The fenced area outside of a living unit. (Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice)
Cells in the Behavioral Treatment Program lockdown unit. (Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice staff members Maureen Washburn and Renee Menart wrote the report after touring several DJJ facilities and speaking to dozens of people involved in the juvenile justice system, including facilities staff and young people who are currently incarcerated or formerly served time inside DJJ institutions.

Menart said that when you walk into a DJJ facility, it feels like a prison, and that every youth they spoke with had either witnessed or experienced violence. This experience continues to haunt them when they leave DJJ, she said, which contributes to high recidivism rates.

"Among the youth we spoke to, you have them all describing feeling very isolated when they come home — feeling distant from their families, feeling overwhelmed by the world," she said. "These youth are coming out of institutions where they spend prime years of their adolescence. They come in as teenagers and they come out as an adult."

Washburn said she was struck during their tours by the secretive culture at DJJ — including limits on which youths they were allowed to talk with.


"The real intent, I think, behind our report was to bring light and bring attention to a system that's really been shrouded in secrecy for a long time," she said.

The report recommends an entire rethinking of the juvenile justice system — something California Gov. Gavin Newsom has already indicated he's open to. Newsom has proposed moving DJJ out from under the state corrections department and into the Department of Health and Human Services.

Menart said she's cautiously optimistic about Newsom's commitment to changing juvenile justice.

"We were certainly encouraged that the governor decided to focus in on the Division of Juvenile Justice, and his recognition that it needs reform is something that we're all very grateful for. We also recognize that the institution needs more than a switch in its agencies," she said.

Menart said a name change is not enough, noting that many of the staff come from a corrections background and that the youth have acclimated to the violent DJJ culture. She said juvenile justice needs to be entirely reimagined, and young people serving time at state facilities should be relocated to county facilities closer to home, which also have empty beds.

"Counties have the capacity and the ability to maintain and support youth," she said. "(These) smaller facilities have family support nearby and can integrate them back into the community more easily and provide a more comprehensive continuum of care."

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