California is moving away from imprisoning juvenile offenders, a development that a group of experts assembled by Sacramento State in June agreed is long overdue.
The University’s Center for California Studies organized a conference that brought together about 100 members of the legal, criminal justice and nonprofit communities to discuss the state’s path forward for handling juvenile offenders.
Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year announced his intention to end juvenile imprisonment in California for most youth, and to replace it with county programs that emphasize mental health care, education and rehabilitation. Under Newsom’s plan, the state Division of Juvenile Justice would move from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and become a new division under the Health and Human Services Agency.
“Locking kids up doesn’t usually work,” Colleen Nichols, presiding judge of the Placer County Juvenile Court, said at the “Pathways for Juvenile Justice” event June 21 at the downtown Library & Courts Building. Nichols said the system that serves juveniles needs to place greater emphasis on understanding past trauma, psychological issues and family backgrounds of offenders.
“Don’t ask a kid ‘What is wrong with you?’ ” Nichols told the audience. “Ask, ‘What happened to you?’ Listen to juvenile clients. They need to have a voice.”
In 1996, about 10,000 people were incarcerated in California’s youth detention facilities. Today, about 700 offenders reside in four facilities, said Chuck Supple, who directs the state’s Juvenile Justice Division. Supple said the state spends about $200 million a year, or $300,000 per child, to house them.
The Juvenile Justice division has been under intense scrutiny for years, accused of subjecting youthful offenders to violence, abuse and isolation at its facilities. The facilities continue to be dark and dangerous places for youth, said Renee Menart, a communications and policy analyst at the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
“We need to reimagine our approach,” Menart said. “Rehabilitation should be the goal, but prison-like settings are ineffective in accomplishing that. The future of juvenile justice really is local.”
“The purpose of the juvenile system is not to punish or seek revenge,” he said. “Our business should be about helping youth who have hurt people.
“Most kids in the juvenile justice system will return to the community,” Supple said. “So everything we do has to be geared toward helping transform them into responsible and successful adults.”
Megan Thorall, who directs the Judicial Fellowship Program based at Sac State, said juvenile justice is a major topic of interest among fellows, who work for 10 months in Superior Court and Judicial Council offices throughout California.
Thorall organized the “Pathways for Juvenile Justice” event, part of the Center for California Studies Envisioning California Speaker Series.
The gathering “not only explored the complexities of this issue; it also invited the community to participate in this important public discussion,” she said.
Center for California Studies executive director Leonor Ehling said the event is a perfect example of the center’s mission, which is “to bridge academia and government.”
“Events like these that bring the community and government officials together to discuss pressing public policy issues really go a long way in furthering this mission,” she said.
Nichols, the Placer County judge, told participants at the event that law enforcement, the judicial system and nonprofit groups must work together to ensure the success of Newsom’s new approach to juvenile justice.
“We need to take a sledgehammer to the silos,” she said. “Our greatest successes in Placer County have come because we work as a team, and everything is done in the best interest of the children. Collaboration is the key.” – Cynthia Hubert