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Critics Fear 'Shadow' Justice System Harms California Youth Prisons

Two and a half years after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed laws meant to provide better community-based alternatives to California’s violence-plagued youth prisons, advocates are going to court to fend off the formation of what they call a “shadow” juvenile justice system. Senate Bill 823 directed the closure of state-run juvenile facilities and shifted funding and responsibility for young offenders to the 58 counties. It was referred to as a “realignment” of the state’s juvenile justice system, building off a larger effort by former Gov. Jerry Brown to divert adult felons convicted of lower-level crimes to county jails. Newsom signed the bill on Sept. 30, 2020, and counties were given several months to prepare for an influx of incarcerated youth in their facilities, according to the Sacramento Bee. County probation officials, who opposed Newsom’s plan but are tasked with implementing it, have taken the unusual step of forming a nonprofit organization, allowing them to circumvent state transparency laws and meet behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny. Advocates fear these issues could cause an rise in youth incarceration, the opposite of what the law was intended to achieve.

Probation chiefs saw Newsom’s plan as an attempt to reduce costs and shift liability without giving local officials enough time or money to make the change successfully. Counties were obligated to take in young people with some of the most severe mental health and behavioral needs. Many probation officials felt they did not have adequate resources to properly serve them. They also took issue with the creation of a new Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OCYR) that was tasked with overseeing the transition. It was placed under California’s Health and Human Services Agency, a move that aligned with the state’s goal of transitioning from a punitive to a rehabilitation-focused approach. In February, the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice filed a lawsuit in Sacramento alleging that county probation officials launched the nonprofit to withhold public data that it collects and sidestep state oversight and public scrutiny. The Youth Law Center, which is representing the youth justice organization that filed the case, argues that because the consortium is run by county officials using public dollars, it should be bound by the same transparency laws as public agencies charged with overseeing the care of incarcerated youth. Meredith Desautels of the Youth Law Center worries that the county officials' group could take over critical state oversight authority without any public input, possibly harming those in the youth justice system. “Now is the time for the state to step in and make sure that this process doesn’t end up doing more harm than good,” Desautels said.


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