California Transitions from State-Run Youth Prisons, Embracing Rehabilitation and Uncertain Future

by Michael Nguyen
youth prison reform

California bids farewell to state-run youth prisons, giving juvenile offenders a chance at rehabilitation instead of punitive sentences. The closure of the last three facilities signifies a shift toward decentralized care, with county probation departments assuming day-to-day operations of juvenile halls. The goal is to break the “school-to-prison pipeline” and provide facilities focused on reformation rather than punishment, but questions remain about the effectiveness of the new approach.

In the past, the state-run youth prison system often reinforced patterns of neglect and violence, exacerbating the issues that led many young offenders astray. Advocates welcome the move away from punitive measures, advocating for settings that prioritize education, mental health care, and other supportive services for children who commit crimes.

However, both supporters and skeptics acknowledge the presence of uncertainties. The state-run system had a troubled history marred by inmate suicides, brawls, and allegations of abuse by staff members. Recent years saw state facilities reserved for the most serious offenders, including those who committed murder, assault, and other grave crimes.

Frankie Guzmán, director of the California Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law and a former youth inmate, highlights concerns about local programs and services’ readiness to handle youths with significant needs and trauma. Guzmán spent six years in California’s youth prisons and understands the system’s limitations in assisting young people struggling with anger issues and untreated trauma.

The California Legislature established the first facility for troubled youth, the San Francisco Industrial School, in 1859 to provide an alternative to housing children alongside adults in state prisons. Over time, the state system grew to encompass 11 lockups housing approximately 10,000 youths. Currently, the remaining state-run facilities hold around 300 youth offenders, with an average age of 19. In 2020, 88% of the population was Black or Latino, reflecting a disproportionate representation.

California counties already handle a significant number of juvenile offenders, with over 35,000 under their care, including more than 3,600 in juvenile halls, camps, and ranches. County probation departments express determination to make the new system work despite the challenges associated with decentralization. However, smaller counties may face difficulties providing care to youth with severe mental health needs, which concerns Karen Pank, the executive director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

Funding for behavioral health has increased in recent years, but not enough resources are directed toward young people or the county probation departments responsible for the new system. Pank emphasizes the necessity of removing barriers and addressing the counties’ actual needs to ensure successful implementation.

California will allocate approximately $230 million annually to assist counties in covering the costs associated with the new system. County probation officers will strive to balance the rehabilitation focus advocated by reform proponents with the possibility of judges still sentencing older teenagers to adult prisons for the most serious offenses at the prosecutor’s request.

However, some believe that meaningful change will only occur with robust state oversight. Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center, asserts that transformation is an ongoing process requiring continual adjustments. The newly established Office of Youth and Community Restoration, part of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, will be responsible for overseeing the realigned system instead of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Yet, Frankie Guzmán worries that this new office lacks the necessary authority and teeth to provide the oversight counties need.

Katherine Lucero, director of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, acknowledges that counties still have work to do. Her office is actively expanding its staff and forging relationships with various partners, including advocates, therapists, and attorneys, to ensure a supportive and safe environment for youths returning to their communities.

Lucero defends her office’s connection with a now-defunct nonprofit established by probation chiefs across California. The County Probation Consortium Partnering for Youth Realignment, which included most of the state’s probation chiefs, provided recommendations on necessary county resources. Critics argued that the consortium introduced unnecessary bureaucracy and lacked transparency, leading to a lawsuit demanding greater openness. The nonprofit recently announced its closure, citing the fulfillment of its critical purpose.

For former youth inmate Jose, who managed to turn his life around during his time in lockup, the hope for the new system lies in a significant staff restructuring and renewed emphasis on health and well-being. Jose envisions a more therapeutic environment, replacing negative behaviors with positive ones and learning to function positively within a community.

The closure of state-run youth prisons marks a significant step for California, but the road ahead is fraught with uncertainties. The success of the new approach depends on the collaboration between counties, adequate funding and resources, and ongoing adjustments to address the needs of young offenders. Only through a comprehensive and well-supported system can meaningful change be achieved and juvenile rehabilitation fostered.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about youth prison reform

What is the recent change happening in California regarding youth prisons?

California has closed its last three state-run youth prisons and handed over the day-to-day operations of juvenile halls to county probation departments. This move aims to shift the focus from punishment to rehabilitation and break the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

What are the goals of the new approach in California?

The new approach prioritizes keeping youth offenders closer to home, providing facilities focused on reformation rather than punishment. The emphasis is on education, mental health care, and other supportive services to address the underlying issues that lead young offenders into trouble.

What were the issues with the previous state-run youth prison system?

The state-run system had a troubled history with inmate suicides, violence, and allegations of physical and sexual abuse by staff members. It primarily reinforced patterns of neglect and violence rather than addressing the root causes of youth delinquency.

Are there concerns about the effectiveness of the new approach?

Yes, there are concerns and uncertainties about the new approach. Critics worry that local programs and services may not be adequately prepared to handle youth with significant needs and trauma. There are also concerns about the availability of resources and the ability of smaller counties to provide care for youth with serious mental health needs.

How will the new system be overseen?

The oversight of the realigned system will be conducted through the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which is part of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. However, some individuals question whether this office has sufficient authority to provide the necessary oversight and support to the county probation departments.

What are the expectations for the future of youth rehabilitation in California?

The success of the new system depends on collaboration between counties, adequate funding and resources, and ongoing adjustments to address the needs of young offenders. Meaningful change can only be achieved through a comprehensive and well-supported system that focuses on rehabilitation and youth well-being.

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Dreamer123 July 9, 2023 - 12:02 am

the closure of state-run youth prisons is a step in the right direction, but we can’t stop there. youth rehabilitation requires ongoing adjustments and support. let’s keep striving for a truly transformative system!

RadicalThinker July 9, 2023 - 12:57 am

this is just the first step, man. we need ongoing change, not just closin prisons. the system needs oversight, resources, & a real focus on rehabilitation. we gotta keep pushin for a better future!

Bookworm82 July 9, 2023 - 3:01 am

wow, didn’t realize the state-run system had such a bad history. it’s sad how it reinforced violence & abuse instead of helpin kids. hope the new approach works out better!

JohnDoe74 July 9, 2023 - 7:10 am

omg, cali is finally closin those prisons?! abt time! hope they rly focus on rehab & nt just punishment. kids need support n educashn, not more violence & neglect!

NatureLover27 July 9, 2023 - 8:55 am

it’s great to see the emphasis on keeping kids closer to home. being in a familiar environment can make a huge diff. but we also gotta ensure the resources and programs are there to help them heal and grow.

LunaDreamer July 9, 2023 - 12:26 pm

so like, is the new system gonna be any better tho? there’s still so much uncertainty. hope they give enough support to the smaller counties so they can handle mental health needs. fingers crossed!

SoccerMom99 July 9, 2023 - 12:48 pm

finally, kids are gettin the help they need! education, mental health care, and support should be the focus. let’s hope the new system makes a real difference in their lives.

TechGeek88 July 9, 2023 - 9:03 pm

i wonder if the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration will actually be effective. they better have some teeth to provide oversight. kids deserve better than what they’ve been through.


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