Mar 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

How California is closing its juvenile jails

a California prison for youths. two people sit at a table. in the background, there are jail cells.

A youth detention center in Stockton, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A Latina judge is leading California's effort to revamp its juvenile justice system, including the closure of the state's youth prisons.

Why it matters: Black and Latino youths are disproportionately incarcerated, and the juvenile justice system has been accused of excessive punishments with higher recidivism rates than those in the adult system.

Details: Under a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in 2020, the state's four youth prisons must close by June 2023, and counties must set up alternatives like camps or minimally restrictive centers.

  • The new approach will center on therapy and health services, vocational education to ease re-entry into society, and community support.
  • Detention centers will be managed under the state's Health Department.
  • Young people who are still incarcerated in one of the prisons that is closing will stay there until they have somewhere to be transferred. That is still being finalized, but it could include a camp-like setting or detention centers with fewer restrictions.

What's next: Katherine Lucero, a former juvenile court judge and the first Latina in the Santa Clara Superior Court, is reviewing plans submitted by the counties and expects to approve them by the end of this year.

  • The state stopped taking in new juvenile prisoners last summer.

What she's saying: Lucero, who was tapped in December to lead the overhaul effort, told Axios Latino that the U.S. "has over-relied on incarceration, particularly within our Black and brown communities, and we will challenge these disparities to disrupt the cycle."

  • "In parallel with finding the least restrictive appropriate environments, [we] will work closely with education partners because connection and a sense of belonging within the education system is critical to an individual’s wellness, a protective factor that decreases involvement in the criminal justice system."

The big picture: Over the past decade, states all over the country have reshaped their juvenile justice systems, and there are fewer youths imprisoned than ever before. States like Indiana, South Dakota, Maryland, and South Carolina are debating juvenile justice reform.

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