Santa Clara County supervisors are backing new efforts to reform juvenile justice, following a new California law that shutters state-run youth incarceration and puts the job of housing young inmates in the hands of individual counties.
Supervisors say the new law, SB 823, can be a catalyst for fixing an outdated youth imprisonment system, and voted unanimously Jan. 12 on a plan that would focus on rehabilitation and therapy rather than surveillance and discipline for incarcerated youth.
Under SB 823, California will phase out its juvenile justice system starting in July and no longer accept inmates from counties, mirroring a similar "realignment" effort in 2011 that diverted adult inmates from state prisons to county jails. Advocacy groups have criticized state-run juvenile prisons for poor conditions, and for doing little to rehabilitate youth and help them return to society.
It's a faulty system that has disproportionately hurt youth of color, and local counties have a chance to turn a new leaf, said Frankie Guzman, director of the Youth Justice Initiative, in a letter to Santa Clara County supervisors.
"SB 823 reforms are based on overwhelming evidence that demonstrates providing rehabilitative youth services in therapeutic environments closer to family and support systems is the most effective approach to improve youth outcomes and community health and safety," Guzman said.
Youth incarceration rates are much higher in the U.S. compared to other countries, and studies have consistently found California's juvenile prisons are rife with violence and neglect. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 3 in 10 young people in state correctional facilities had attempted suicide on at least one occasion, and 30% reported being physically or sexually abused. More than half showed symptoms of anxiety, more than half showed symptoms of depression and more than two-thirds reported substance abuse problems.
At the same time, the report notes that California's prisons have done little to reduce recidivism, and that anywhere from 70% to 80% of youth inmates are rearrested within two or three years.
Over the last 25 years, the population in California's juvenile prisons has dropped significantly from a peak of 10,000 to less than 1,000 today, prompting the closure of 8 of the 11 state-run facilities. With the passage of SB 823, the final three will be shuttered, instead granting authority and funding for counties to solely oversee juvenile detention.
SB 823 was signed into law as a budget trailer bill last year, approved by the legislature on a party-line vote in the state Senate, with Democratic lawmakers in favor. Counties will receive funding to house youth inmates, which will no longer be transferred to state facilities as of July 1.
The law explicitly calls for the "least restrictive" environment for youth inmates, reduced transfers to adult jail facilities and a reduction in racial and ethnic disparities among those incarcerated. The reforms should improve the outcomes of youth coming out of jail and improve public safety, according to the bill.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said youth are more likely to be successful after release if they can stay connected with their families and the community during incarceration, and that jail services should be slated towards rehabilitation.
Studies have found that youth prisons programs tend to be more successful when addressing risk factors associated with criminal behavior, including anger, anti-social behavior, lack of self-control and lack of affection or weak supervision from parents.
"It's a really exciting opportunity for our county as we work towards a comprehensive framework of criminal justice reform for our adult and youth populations," Ellenberg said.
County supervisors agreed on a 5-0 vote at the Jan. 12 meeting to convene a committee that will create the blueprint for juvenile justice reform, led by the county's chief probation officer, with representation from the district attorney, the public defender and behavioral health service department. Five community members will also serve on the committee.
County officials are expected to create the subcommittee next month.
Correction: This story incorrectly named the name of the new state Senate bill. Palo Alto Online regrets the error.