California’s Juvenile Justice System Under New Scrutiny Following Investigative Study
A lockdown unit at DJJ's Chad facility | Photo courtesy of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Over the last two decades, California’s juvenile justice system has seemingly made efforts in improving on a structure that has often left it on the receiving end of misconduct allegations, lawsuits, and civil rights complaints. At its height, the system housed roughly 10,000 teens and young adults accused of committing such offenses as assault, robbery, and homicide. Today, that number stands at less than 700. Although the population has decreased by 93 percent, a new study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice suggests that the extent of its improvements end there.  

“Today, as it has for more than 100 years, the state system is failing youth, their families, and their communities, and is neglecting its most basic obligation: to rehabilitate young people and keep them safe,” reads the report titled Unmet Promises: Continued Violence & Neglect in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, which was released on Tuesday.

Much like the nation’s prison system, California’s juvenile centers house a far greater number of African-American and Latino youth. According to the report, these particular ethnic groups make up 87 percent of DJJ’s population and are committed to the facilities at far higher rates than white youth. It also shows that those detained — as much as 90 percent — are victims of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and nearly a quarter suffers from post-traumatic stress because of these negative exposures.

Instead of working with the youth to help them move past these obstacles, researchers found that the trauma faced by young people is almost always compounded after staying in one of California’s four facilities.  

“When we have a system that is frequently returning kids home with layers of trauma and layers of challenges, rather than rehabilitation like they’re supposed to, it’s a problem for all of us,” Maureen Washburn, a policy analyst at the CJCJ and a co-author of the report told the Huffington Post.

A 2016 study suggests that as many as 75 percent of the young adults who are released from the DJJ are arrested again within three years. Numbers show that they also have low levels of employment and education.

Because African-American and Latino youth are confined at 1.5 and 1.7 times the rate of white youth, respectively, after accounting for differences in violent felony arrests, the aftermath of a DJJ confinement, overwhelmingly and unevenly affects communities of color. When looking at the geographic areas represented within the facilities, researchers found that the “institutional population is heavily skewed toward a small number of counties, particularly those that have failed to invest in local alternatives.”

Among some of the other key findings are that the facilities are becoming increasingly more violent, the youth live in a climate of fear, facility schools are failing to provide basic education, and due to the lack of oversight, the state system is not being held accountable.

“The Governor’s budget offers an opportunity for the state to reimagine juvenile justice and reduce reliance on these archaic institutions,” Washburn believes. “To ensure that all youth receive trauma-informed care that prepares them to return home healthy and whole, the state must begin phasing out the DJJ facilities and maximizing the substantial capacity already available for youth in local, close-to-home settings.”

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