After 80 Years, California to Close Its Troubled Youth Prison System

California began its youth prison system with good intentions — the idea was to keep juveniles separate from the dangers of adult prisons.

Unfortunately, the state’s youth prisons have also been plagued with troubling levels of violence and dysfunction for much of their existence.

Now comes a new plan to “transform” the juvenile justice system in an effort to end a long record of abuses within its prisons.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

“The planned dismantling of the Division of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, comes after years of scandal and mistreatment of young offenders, which spurred multiple reform efforts and more than a decade of state court oversight that ended in 2016. The shutdown mirrors changes across the country — embracing rehabilitation over punishment and confinement close to home, rather than in isolated state facilities.

“Three remaining DJJ prisons will stop taking new prisoners in July, with rare exceptions. California plans to close the facilities — twin lockups in Stockton and another in Ventura — in July 2023, under a state law passed last year and a budget directive issued in January by Gov. Gavin Newsom.”

Building a Rehabilitation-Based Model

Critics of the youth penal system have hailed the decision. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a non-profit that worked to close state-level youth prisons, blamed them for unacceptable levels of violence and the legitimization of gangs. The group also assailed the state’s youth prisons for failing to control a serious COVID-19 outbreak that sickened many of the prisoners and staff.

Yet while advocates are heartened by the closures, they view them as a first step toward a reorientation of the entire juvenile justice toward restorative justice. Instead of focusing on punishment, advocates say juveniles need to be rehabilitated and prepared for re-entry into society.

The closures also come on the heels of decisions by many counties in the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions to begin locking up fewer juveniles and rein in the policy of charging juveniles as adults.

These decisions have been sparked in part by a new emerging consensus on juvenile neuroscience. According to the Times:

“Research has confirmed that adolescents have lower impulse control, greater mood swings and suffer long-term damage from the kind of prolonged isolation they endure in prison. In short: Punitive measures don’t work.”

Advocates, county officials, prosecutors and judges are also focused on developing a new system for handling juveniles convicted of the most violent crimes. In the absence of a system — and without youth prisons to lean on — advocates worry that judges may send violent offenders to adult prisons for lack of another option.

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