Over the past decade, California has made a number of significant reforms to its criminal justice system that not only made important steps toward turning around a deeply troubled prison system but retained voters’ support on the 2020 ballot. Now the state is implementing a set of reforms to its juvenile justice system that, while low‐profile, are set to replace California’s historically flawed state Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
The plan to close DJJ reflects two important realities: California imprisons fewer juveniles than before, and the cost of incarcerating those who remain is unsustainable (almost $300,000 per person). There are causes for not only optimism about the reforms, but to think that they could be a model for other states.
As Governor Newsom’s original proposal noted, juvenile detention facilities at the county level have more than enough space to accommodate offenders currently held in state facilities, and housing offenders in county facilities allows them more access to their families and home communities, who can be important resources in the rehabilitation process. DJJ, on the other hand, has a higher recidivism rate than California’s adult prison system does, and has failed to eliminate perennial reports of abuses.
Governor Newsom and the legislature took the first steps toward closing DJJ in last year’s legislative session, passing SB 823, and added further details this year with SB 92. These bills started the process of zeroing out DJJ’s population by barring it from accepting most new inmates after July 1, 2021, and transferring any remaining inmates to their home counties by July 1, 2023. SB 823 would also create a Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant program to fund county‐level services for the children who would have otherwise been wards of DJJ. Alongside the Juvenile Justice Block Grant, SB 823 created the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) to collect data from counties and use this data to identify best practices and policy recommendations.
California’s plan to close DJJ includes several provisions that will help ensure that the reforms amount to an improvement rather than an exercise in bureaucratic buck‐passing:
- Collecting data to evaluate counties’ performance
- Providing a resource with best practices so counties know what works
- Ensuring accountability and maintaining oversight through the block grant program
SB 823 established new data collection requirements and the requirement to make data publicly available online. This system will collect, compile, and publish data from California’s 58 counties, which is necessary for transparency and for outside researchers and watchdogs to understand and constructively critique the new system. Too often, California’s 58 county governments collect or store important data separately, making it hard for citizens to understand how — and how well — their government is working. One example of this is data about the recidivism rate for county juvenile justice programs, which (in contrast to DJJ’s statistics) are decentralized and hard to find.
The data collection requirement could also enable counties to experiment with new, innovative models that could prove to be a significant improvement over existing systems. San Francisco is one such example, with its plan to close its juvenile detention facility and replace it with home‐like rehabilitative centers. If San Francisco’s experiment is a success, and admittedly, there is no guarantee that it will, this reform should be adopted by other counties.
California’s juvenile justice reforms also include an important potential incentive for counties to adopt best practices compiled by the state and work toward improving their systems. The new Juvenile Justice Block Grant takes roughly the amount of money spent on DJJ and provides it to counties toward their spending on juvenile offenders who would previously have been sent to DJJ. Notably, this makes realignment budget‐neutral relative to the previous system. The block grant program, in exchange for providing additional funding to counties, imposes additional reporting requirements, and requires counties to provide their plans for using the funds, with these plans published by OYCR. To ensure that the block grant money is spent responsibly, California should condition funding on counties’ juvenile justice systems being adequate, instead of turning approval and funding into a formality as in other policy areas. California policymakers have not only the opportunity but the duty to incentivize counties to adopt evidence‐based practices to improve outcomes for youths in the justice system, as well as to collect the data from which to derive these best practices.
There are, of course, reasons for optimism about California’s juvenile justice reforms to remain measured. This is not the first time that California transferred responsibilities from a scandal‐ridden state agency to its 58 counties. In large part due to a 1991 reform law, California transferred the responsibility for providing mental health services from the state level to the counties. At the least, this parallel should inspire great care in the plan for juvenile justice realignment: mental health realignment was flawed in many ways, and California’s mental health system has serious shortcomings.
Juvenile justice realignment, on the other hand, has a number of provisions that allay some of the concerns about parallels with mental health realignment. After mental health realignment, despite some measure of legislative tinkering, the reform program strayed from its intended goals. After California voters approved a new tax that provided a designated funding stream for mental health services, a state audit found that county mental health agencies had poor processes for spending the funding, and that they received insufficient oversight from the state. In juvenile justice, on the other hand, the state is maintaining the capacity for oversight through OCYR, and a capacity to hold counties accountable, through the juvenile justice block grant authorized by the legislature instead of mandated by a ballot initiative.
It’s also necessary to give DJJ credit where it is due: leading up to the Covid pandemic, DJJ made reforms intended to shift the facilities to a more rehabilitative model, taking Missouri’s juvenile justice system as an example. These reforms provided a degree of momentum in the right direction, and California can maintain this momentum at the county level by putting its Missouri Model plan in writing, and providing it to counties as a recommendation. Of course, as noted above, San Francisco has its own plan for shifting to a more rehabilitative model, as does Los Angeles (although Los Angeles’ plan has already encountered problems). But the shift from state to county‐level responsibility for serious or violent juvenile offenders must continue the progress that DJJ appeared to be making, however limited.
Some of the causes for caution are more structurally ingrained than a realignment plan, however detailed, can address. In some ways, California’s county governments are designed in a way that makes them susceptible to poor governance. Counties (with the combined city and county of San Francisco being the only notable exception) are governed by Boards of Supervisors, who are, in general, lower‐profile than mayors, but farther removed than city council members. Without a centralized authority or comprehensible separation of powers at the county level, voters can have trouble understanding who to blame for poor management — a major obstacle when deciding whether to throw out lousy elected officials.
This governance problem with California’s county governments underlines the importance of a robust state‐level source of oversight to spur transparency and good management. But it would be, to some extent, naive to expect proper oversight: the only guarantee of decent government management is an active, educated bloc of voters who care deeply about the issues and hold elected officials accountable. Coincidentally, voters are paying more attention to criminal justice — and considering more drastic reforms — than they have before. While the center of today’s criminal justice reform movement is policing, the movement can expand its impact by demanding a new focus on rehabilitation, or at least good management, at county juvenile justice agencies.
Admittedly, transferring responsibility from the state to counties has a checkered history, but California has an opportunity to change that, and this set of reforms has meaningful details designed to avoid possible pitfalls. The stakes are high not only for the 800 young people locked up by the Division of Juvenile Justice, but for California’s adult prison system and the nation’s emerging prison abolition movement: these new reforms are too important to get wrong.