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California Reimagines Juvenile Justice With End of State Lockups on the Horizon

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Salinas resident Elijah Ramirez spent three and a half years in the state Department of Juvenile Justice for attempted murder during a street fight, where he was shot four times. Ramirez says the state lockup didn't support his physical or mental healing. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Elijah Ramirez was 16 years old when he arrived at one of California's three remaining state-run juvenile lockups just before Christmas in 2014.

He was there to begin a sentence for attempted murder.

"I came in there with trauma already as it is," he said during an interview last year. "This place didn't help me with that trauma. It intensified it."

During the incident that landed him in the Department of Juvenile Justice — a street fight in Salinas — Ramirez was shot four times, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. When he arrived at the state facility, a two-hour drive from his hometown, he expected to be able to continue his medical treatment and physical therapy, but says he ended up locked in a battle with the staff over where he should be housed and what treatment they would provide.

"So here I am 16 years old. Mind you, I'm a child. I had just been shot. I'm locked up now," he said.

Ramirez says it was an awful three and half years. His story is familiar to advocates who for years have been agitating for changes at the state system, which is generally reserved for young people convicted of very serious crimes like assault and murder.

After years of debate, state leaders are embracing change and looking to reshape how California deals with young people convicted of crimes.

As of July 1, the Department of Juvenile Justice — the youth equivalent of the state prison system — will stop accepting virtually all new wards, leaving the state’s 58 counties to figure out how to handle those young people.

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Eventually, Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to shutter DJJ entirely. In signing the legislation to start that process this fall, the governor proclaimed "the beginning of the end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it," adding that "juvenile justice should be about helping kids imagine and pursue new lives — not jumpstarting the revolving door of the criminal justice system."

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that state leaders are willing to make this shift. Calls for change have become louder over the past two decades as youth crime in California plummeted by 80%, said Renee Menart, policy analyst and advocate at the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

That drop in population means that, on average, California is now spending a staggering $316,000 a year on each young person at DJJ, said Menart.

"DJJ has gone through cycles of abuse and superficial reforms for decades," she said. "We've been a proponent for its closure because the system has repeatedly been unable to address its inherent flaws."

Those flaws, Menart said, include moving young people far away from their families and communities, and into an institutional setting that sets them up for failure.

"DJJ has long failed young people and their home communities, so we're excited to see an opportunity to bring them closer to home and in smaller settings," she added.

Of course, all this begs the questions: Where will they go? And will it actually be better?

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Much of these answers will depend on the state’s probation chiefs, who oversee juvenile justice at the county level. Kirk Haynes is probation chief in Fresno County, which usually has 35 to 40 young people in the state system at a time.

"What we try to do is to build a system where we serve young people in a way that we're not just looking at only the crime that was committed, but we also look at why did they come to the point where those crimes are being committed," he said.

Hanyes said he’s already talking to neighboring counties about the possibility of regional partnerships, and is working with the University of Cincinnati to develop new programs and approaches.

He believes counties can do this work, but says they need resources from the state — and not just for staffing and programs, but also to improve the physical spaces so they can house youths who’ve been convicted of violent or sexual crimes, have longer sentences and different needs than the current population they’re used to working with.

"I mean, in order to kind of pull this off in the right way, we should have had a two-year period to be able to plan for it," he said.

This plan was admittedly rushed through the Legislature last summer, as the state struggled with the pandemic and the ensuing budget shortfalls. There is state money attached: Under the current state plan, $45 million will be allocated to counties next fiscal year, an amount that will grow to nearly $200 million a year by 2023.

Some counties are eager to go further than the state is mandating.

Katy Miller is juvenile probation chief in San Francisco, which usually has just a couple of kids in the state system at any given time.

Miller is not only planning for the closure of DJJ, but also of San Francisco’s local juvenile hall. The Board of Supervisors here voted to shutter the lockup by the end of 2021 — meaning the county needs to figure out how it will securely house young people who get into trouble, and what alternatives to incarceration they can create.

"The question becomes now: (not) what don't we do, but what do we do? What do we build in its place as a system for our young people that meets their needs and promotes community safety?" Miller said.

That doesn’t mean simply moving kids from the state lockup to one closer to home, Miller explains. It means reimagining what a safe, secure environment looks like for young people who can’t go home — and building a system that adequately supports those who can.

To do that, she said, local leaders will need to get input from young people like Elijah Ramirez, who have been there before.

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