BYE DJJ: California to Close Youth Prisons

BYE DJJ: California to Close Youth Prisons

December 9, 2020 | Hayden T. Renato

Hayden Renato

The journey to pass SB823 was the journey to shut down California’s youth prison system and to make something better. The first objective appears to have been fulfilled in policy, though the second objective is now in the hands of California’s 58 counties and the new juvenile justice oversight agency that will tie their policies together.

Understanding and shaping policy is a passion of mine. As a juvenile, I spent time in both Arizona’s foster care system and the adult prison system. I left custody with the trauma and experience to inform my work with youth, and the healing process has opened doors to understanding why the system functions the way it does and what we can do to make it more just, holistic, and wholesome for everyone involved.

The bill provides that the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which is currently under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, will stop accepting youth after July 1, 2021. Youth in DJJ custody at that point will be returned to the counties where their cases were adjudicated, and there will no longer be a “state option” for disposition. A block grant has been set up to provide counties, local programs, and agencies money toward services for youth.

How “services” will be defined is still unclear; I hope that the SB823 money will be spent on community-based alternatives to incarceration as well as holistic reentry services for youth leaving lockup environments and/or probation custody. Support to find housing, employment, healthcare, and education is absolutely necessary. I know from personal experience that it is hard to leave a facility and be successful when you don’t know where you’re going, and it is even harder to function when your record speaks louder than your values, skills, dreams, and humanity. Brick walls, handcuffs, tasers, and uniforms won’t put food on the table or restore community balance. Youth need a place to call home, and that needs to be a place where they can grow and learn more about themselves and their community. We need to remove the incentives to commit crime, which generally include fear, hunger, and oppression.

This process has been in the works for several years, but it wasn’t until recently that it gained serious legal traction. In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom introduced his plan to move DJJ to the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS). An untold number of voters supported this, but it appears that many constituents wanted more than what amounts to a change in management. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people took to the state capitol and the streets demanding, “CLOSE DJJ THE RIGHT WAY.” The state legislature had passed a bill to implement the governor’s plan, but it was clear that the plan to move DJJ to health and human services wasn’t going to cut it. Substantially outdoing previous measures, SB823 was passed and signed into law as one of the most significant changes to California’s juvenile justice system in decades.

The Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) is a new state agency within CHHS, charged with administering the newly created block grant. This new agency will include an ombudsman position with investigative authority to address complaints about the juvenile justice system.

The power of SB823 can be good or bad, depending on how it is implemented. The state is essentially handing over control to 58 counties. How can we be sure that there will be uniform fairness and accountability across the board? The newly created Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) will issue grants, but some counties may want this money for more facilities and officers to police youth. It falls on community members to do what they can to influence priorities for OYCR grant requests at the county level, before they are approved and implemented. Subordinate to the OYCR, each county will have a subcommittee tasked with creating an implementation and expenditure plan for SB823 funds.

Counties across the state should implement a democratic procedure to fill the seats of each subcommittee. The county can set its own rules on how these positions are filled, and this could be a disaster, especially in places where one official, such as the chief of probation, has unilateral authority to appoint committee members. For this reason, the subcommittee must be a platform for affected youth, people of color, community providers, and social service professionals to express their concerns and share their expertise based on what youth need to succeed. It must not be a platform for probation officers, victims, or career politicians; they already have their own platforms in court and through the district attorney.

To hold our elected officials accountable, the community needs to be aware of how the county is using state funds. The community also needs to know how youth are being treated while in county custody, whether it be inside a locked facility or under the supervision of the county probation department. The ombudsman won’t work if we do not remain vigilant and keep a good eye on our youths’ well-being. remain active in every step of their rehabilitative process, all the way from procuring funding for community-based alternatives to incarceration to making sure the youth have a place to call home after they leave the system.

We also need to ensure that our elected officials are not seeking or granting requests for funds to build new lockup facilities. This means that showing up to give public comment at county commission and subcommittee meetings might not be enough. We should routinely request budget and spending reports under our state’s public records laws, speak with system-involved youth and families in the community, and tell the ombudsman if something isn’t right. We also need people and organizations in the community who are willing to see the investigative process through to the end.

We, as a community, need to control the plan and the narrative. The governor and the legislature have come to an historic agreement with SB823, but the work doesn’t end there. It is important to invest time and effort in restoring balance to the lives of youth. The bill provides a unique opportunity for youth to remain close to home and their communities and for them to receive better services—but only if it is implemented properly. If not, the bill will provide another opportunity to increase spending on policing and corrections to augment what is being removed from state control.

For SB823 to work properly, we need to make it work for youth. We can’t do this by diluting their voices. Forcing youth to compete to have their voices heard on career-political platforms is both cruel and unfair, which is why we need to watch our committees and make sure they are filled with people who will make a difference in the lives of these youth. As a formerly incarcerated person and as a former foster youth, I ask you to take these changes seriously and make sure that the tools we’ve been provided do not fall into the wrong hands.

Hayden Renato is a fellow on the Youth Justice Board at Evident Change. He is formerly incarcerated, and he is also a former foster youth. Hayden has been a community organizer since age 18, focused on finding community-based alternatives to institutionalization of youth. He is currently in school for psychology and paralegal studies and aspires to become a lawyer to address human rights concerns involving youth and people who are oppressed.