Aug 2, 2023 - News

California juvenile prison closures forge new test for counties

Photo of a former state correctional facility, showing cells with yellow doors

The Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility, which became a California historical landmark after closing in 2004, as seen in Whittier in 2015. Photo: Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

As California transitions to a localized juvenile justice system, probation officers across the state say they lack the support needed to adequately serve their youth.

Why it matters: California's decision to shutter its state juvenile prisons this year was part of a larger reform effort following reports of staff's use of force, teen drug overdoses and reliance on isolated confinement.

  • Local officials, however, say counties remain ill-equipped amid an "aggressive" timeline.

How it happened: Juvenile court interventions can take several forms, including placement in a county facility. Detention in state facilities, operated by the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), was typically limited to those convicted of serious or violent offenses, such as assault.

  • In September 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation requiring state juvenile prisons to close by June 30, 2023, and transfer remaining youth back to their counties.
  • DJJ stopped committing new youth starting July 2021 and instead shifted responsibility to county governments, which would receive annual state funding.

But the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) association warned in a January letter to Newsom that the "aggressive" timeline posed challenges for creating the specialized programs needed to serve youth who would've been sent to DJJ — such as treatment for sex offenses and hospital beds for mental health crises.

  • DJJ closures would "essentially double the population" of young people currently served in county facilities, according to CPOC.
  • CJCJ also wrote in February that DJJ "lacks a clear transition plan" and that many counties risk "replicating DJJ's harmful practices ... with an emphasis on locking youth in detention centers."

What they're saying: "California has supported every county through two years of preparation — and over $359 million in direct funding," Katherine Lucero, director of the state's Office of Youth and Community Restoration, said in a statement to Axios when asked about calls for more support.

  • Lucero said the state "will continue to provide technical assistance, grant opportunities and best practices guidance to counties."

Zoom in: San Francisco's chief juvenile probation officer Katy Miller told Axios that it's been difficult to shift from a short-term juvenile hall model for teens 17 and under to long-term care of young adults who might stay until they're 25.

  • It's a developmentally "different phase of life," Miller said.
  • While she supports a localized model that keeps young people near their communities, Miller noted that the "fairly accelerated time frame" has led to concerns about making the shift effectively.

Across the Bay, Contra Costa County is struggling with similar issues, chief probation officer Esa Ehmen-Krause told Axios.

  • Earlier this year, the county resettled young people who had been in DJJ centers. Its program has focused on helping them plan for educational and career interests.
  • But the state's inconsistent allocation of funding has hurt the county's staffing, budgeting ability and contracts with service providers, Ehmen-Krause noted.
  • "I do think we can do this better at the local level ... but it comes down to the need for a consistent, predictable and flexible funding stream."

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