In the weeks before California shuttered its lockups for juveniles on June 30, teens and young adults aged 15 to 25 who had been convicted of crimes like robbery, rape, and murder were sent to county-run youth detention centers closer to home, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The closures of the state’s youth prison system had been in the works since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the shutdown in2020 to trim costs from juvenile justice budgets. He said the move would give those youth and young adults more access to their families, whose moral and other support could improve a convicted young person’s chances of being redirected onto a better life path. While Newsom’s intentions are considered good, some argue the transfer of those youth from state to county custody has not been well-timed or well-planned. “The state opened up Pandora’s box and now we’re trying to manage this disaster,” said George Galvis of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. More than two dozen advocates, members of county juvenile justice commissions, probation chiefs, and incarcerated youth describe local juvenile halls whose lack of preparation includes being understaffed.
County-run juvenile halls were designed as short-term holding facilities for youth as they awaited trial, not for confining youth sentenced for long periods of time for committing serious offenses. Juvenile halls lack the resources to provide rehabilitative programming including exercise, education, work training, and other reentry programs, for youth who’d be incarcerated for years. Already, critics say, youth are spending more time than they are supposed to in their cells, rather than being involved in outdoor or other activities. Access to mental health services and exercise, education, and vocational opportunities is sparse, they say. “What we’ve ultimately pivoted to,” said Frankie Guzman of the National Center for Youth Law, “is worse than a medium-security prison. We now have maximum security youth detention facilities that are essentially mini county jails. We are hearing across the state that young people are languishing in juvenile halls without any kind of evidence-based, trauma-informed, culturally rooted treatment or services. And the settings are pretty draconian.” Alameda County Juvenile Court Judge Scott Jackson said as things now stand, youths should not be returned to their home communities. “I do not want any of our [kids convicted of violent crimes] leaving this facility and going directly back into the community,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy transition."