California Youth Justice Advocates Applaud Historic Step Towards Ending Youth Incarceration 

Governor Newsom Signs Landmark Legislation After Decades-Long Push By Formerly Incarcerated Leaders, Advocates

California youth advocates applauded Governor Gavin Newsom for signing landmark legislation today that will close the state’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), a move that now offers a historic opportunity to advance racial equity and transform the youth justice system. The effort to close DJJ the right way led by community members who were formerly incarcerated at DJJ and experienced this traumatizing system firsthand.

“This moment represents the end of California’s outdated corrections model for dealing with vulnerable youth through punishment and control,” said Frankie Guzman, director of the Youth Justice Initiative at National Center for Youth Law. “It represents the end of our state’s failed policies that ripped youths out of their communities, subjected them to unacceptable levels of abuse and neglect in remote prisons, and destroyed countless lives and entire communities. In order to achieve our vision for youth justice, we must ensure that youth, community, and development experts play lead roles in developing and implementing new, effective approaches to serving all youth.”

The bill, SB 823, creates meaningful state oversight of a realigned youth justice system, invests in healing centered evidence-based approaches grounded in youth development for high-needs youth, and helps prevent the transfer of youth to adult prisons, a majority of whom are Black youth and youth of color. Closure of DJJ will keep young people closer to their home, families, and needed services.

“With the Governor’s signature on SB 823, a historic achievement is now complete. Historic status is not conferred only by legislative actions and signatures; to be accurate this narrative must record the tenacity, hard work and commitment of incredible advocate partners we have had the privilege to work alongside to help make this happen,”  said Chet P. Hewitt, president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation. “We celebrate this extraordinary moment for youth across this great state, and acknowledge work remains to be done. Let the struggle for equity and justice continue.”

The effort to close the Division of Juvenile Justice was spearheaded by advocates and community leaders who were directly impacted by incarceration in their youth.

“As someone who was incarcerated for four years in the state youth prison system, I am elated that this ineffective, dangerous, and traumatizing system will be closing,” shared Israel Villa, Deputy Director of the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice. “This is a leap in the right direction, however much more work is necessary to ensure we are not simply shifting from a failed state punishment system to a failed county punishment system. Incarceration does not address adverse child experiences, intergenerational trauma, poverty, or structural and systematic racism, which we know are the root causes of criminalization,” Villa added.

Villa concluded, “We thank Governor Newsom for taking this bold step and look forward to working with his administration to ensure youth are supported through community-based programs that focus on healing and invest in the strengths and abilities of young people. It always has, and always will, take a village to raise a child.”

The bill provides state support for successful implementation and full funding to counties to increase their ability to serve realigned youth at all levels of need locally. SB 823 also provides oversight and accountability of county systems to ensure youth well-being is prioritized and funds are used effectively.

In addition, the bill requires that the state create a plan for improving its data collection system, and for counties to report important data on programs, services, and youth outcomes. The bill also includes safeguards to prevent needless transfers of youth to adult courts and state prisons by giving counties the resources and authority to treat youth locally up to age 25.

A recent poll commissioned by the The California Endowment on state voters’ attitudes toward the California’s youth prison system showed that:

  • More than two-thirds of voters, 68%,  support the idea of closing youth prisons and replacing them with a new agency that would provide non-probation based youth development and public health services.
  • Voters offer widespread and broad support for a number of policies to reduce the number of youth who are incarcerated.
  • By more than a two-to-one ratio, voters prefer to have a youth development agency rather than the probation system take responsibility for incarcerated youth as youth prisons close.

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