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Back to the Future for CA Youth Prison Reform

Less than a year before California's once-massive network of state-run youth prisons completes a gradual shutdown, young people ages 14 to 24 who committed serious offenses as minors are being returned to county juvenile detention facilities that fall far short of the "secure youth treatment facilities" envisioned when the state mandated a therapeutic instead of punitive approach, The Imprint reports. “I don’t think anybody contemplated that kids would be returned to counties only to be put in a detention facility,” said Katherine Lucero, a former longtime Santa Clara County juvenile court judge appointed to lead the state Office of Youth and Community Restoration. The new state agency is tasked with overseeing the transition from the state to the counties under a law passed in 2020.


The not-so-new look of juvenile justice in California depends on new state standards that have yet to be established. Meantime, existing county facilities, with their cells and heavy metal doors bear little resemblance to the home-like centers outlined by law to provide for "mental and emotional health, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and any disabilities or special needs" in a therapeutic environment. Counties have been given hundreds of millions of dollars for the shift, including an additional $100 million in the most recent state budget. Now, they are scrambling to refurbish their juvenile halls to accommodate older youth for long periods of time. In many parts of the state, this has simply amounted to adding a therapeutic veneer. While the county plans consistently reference the intent to create “homelike” environments, planned upgrades include razor wire, surveillance cameras, body scanners, padded “safety rooms,” and even the renovation of an abandoned Secure Housing Unit — the designation for a “SHU,” or maximum security unit generally used for discipline in the highest-level adult prisons.

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