image_pdfimage_print

Californians Lean Toward Eliminating Youth Prisons in New Survey

LOS ANGELES — California’s juvenile prisons have long had a poor reputation as mere stops on the way to grown-up prisons, overcrowded places where reform or rehabilitation were rarely achieved.

That bad rep might help explain why most Californians voice some support for closing youth prisons, according to a recent survey commissioned by the California Endowment, a private health foundation.

A majority of respondents want to close juvenile corrections facilities on those terms, with 22 percent voicing strong support and 39 percent saying they “somewhat support” closures. Only 13 percent were strongly opposed to the idea, while 20 percent remained “somewhat opposed.”

Instead of feeding teens into a system that exacerbates trauma and harm, we need to offer meaningful alternatives, Democratic Sen. Holly J. Mitchell said.

“We need to get frank about the overpolicing in certain communities and the perceptions that black and brown kids are more violent and less deserving, and how that impacts their lives,” she said. “In some cases, the pendulum has swung way too far, to where kids’ typical adolescent behaviors have been criminalized.”

Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, a private health foundation that commissioned the survey, praised Californians in a statement for understanding “what the research clearly shows: incarcerating young people is a failed strategy that must be replaced with what works” by shifting “tax dollars from punishment to prevention.”

Between June 19 and 23, researchers conducted an online survey and collected responses from 1,042 California adults. The study, which set quotas for respondents to ensure a “representative, demographically balanced sample,” found little difference along lines of gender, age, ethnicity or political party. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement: Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans voiced some support for closing youth prisons, with 47 percent of GOP respondents opposed and others declining response.  

Across the board, more people supported closing juvenile prisons — to the tune of five to 10 percentage points — after hearing about their high costs, some of the reasons behind incarcerations and the racial disparities in the system.

California spends more than $1 billion a year on its youth prison system — one of the nation’s largest — and operates more than 125 state and county lockups, according to the Endowment’s report. Of the 6,000 young people currently locked up, about three-fourths have been found guilty of nonviolent offenses such as theft, vandalism or even running away from home.

About 80 percent of incarcerated youth are black or Latino, according to the report. By comparison, about 57 percent of California youth were black or Latino in 2016, according to the census.

That overrepresentation of youth of color in our juvenile prisons reflects the troubling racial disparity that is seen in the adult prison population, too — a disparity that experts increasingly believe is a result of persistent biases that are present in modern policing, and date back to slavery.

Legislators are troubled by those parallels, and the way adolescents are facing adult consequences for what too-often amounts to childhood indiscretions.

A recent study from experts at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that the problem of biases in perceptions are particularly pronounced for black girls, who are viewed by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” when they are 5 to 14 years old. The researchers found that this characterization “may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.

Mitchell and Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, filed a package of bills this past spring that intend to divert children from landing in juvenile detention facilities, including a provision that would bar kids under the age of 12 from being sent to juvenile prisons, and a mandate that anyone under age 18 speak to an attorney before waiving his or her rights in police interviews. Another bill in the package makes California law reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and bars minors from being sentenced to life without parole.

Although that last bill is rooted in a precedent set by the highest court in the U.S., Mitchell says, like most criminal justice proposals, her legislation faces an uphill battle with advocates for law enforcement and district attorneys in Sacramento. One of the bills in the package has been signed into law; the others are still in the mix.

Mitchell and Lara also want to crack down on what’s called a debt trap in the juvenile justice system — court and detention fees. The Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm, says that too often, a family’s inability to pay these fees can push the child deeper into the system. “Racially disproportionate treatment in the system leaves people of color with significantly more criminal justice debt, including burdensome administrative fees,” according to a University of California at Berkeley study.

In California, juvenile corrections have faced reform efforts for years. In 2003, advocates brought a lawsuit (Farrell v. Cate) alleging unsafe overcrowding and the rise of gangs and violence within facilities, among other problems. A consent decree was issued in late 2004 to require state juvenile corrections officials to improve safety, staff training and access to mental health, education and religious services. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation that barred low-level offenders from being committed to the state system and offered county probation systems more funding to keep more offenders local.

In the years since, Gov. Jerry Brown has called for California to become the first state to entirely eliminate state-run prisons for juvenile offenders. After years of closures, the state currently operates three youth prisons.  

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

This story has been updated.


Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Study: Zero Tolerance Policies May Have Negative Health Implications for Students

A new report based on research of three California school districts suggests that school children exposed to so called, “zero tolerance” policies may be taking a toll on their mental health and wellbeing.

The report,  funded by the California Endowment and coordinated by Human Impact Partners (HIP), Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education (CADRE) and Restorative Justice Partners (RJP), examined three student populations in Los Angeles, Oakland and Salinas, California. It found that youth enrolled in middle and high schools that practiced zero tolerance policies were much likelier to have higher stress levels than students attending schools using alternate disciplinary models, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative justice (RJ) programs.

Researchers believe that stress levels are major components regarding students’ mental health and that elevated stress levels may even lead to shorter life expectancies for the populations studied.

Additionally, the researchers state that students enrolled in schools using PBIS or RJ disciplinary models were, on average, more likely to have higher grades, test scores and overall attendance rates than students enrolled in schools using zero tolerance, also called exclusionary disciplinary programs. The report also says that students enrolled in schools with zero tolerance programs have higher dropout rates, participate in fewer extracurricular activities and are referred to special education programs more frequently than students attending schools with alternative disciplinary polices in place.

The report states that a majority of schools in the United States use “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, which frequently result in severe punishment - such as expulsion or arrest - for infractions involving weapons, drugs, threats and in some instances, insubordination or cursing.

The two primary alternate disciplinary policies studied by researchers - PBIS and RJ models - incorporate the teaching of social skills into class curriculums, with greater emphasis on reinforcing positive student behavior. Restorative justice programs, in particular, involve students directly in school improvement initiatives, with teachers and administrators, to alter disruptive behaviors.

The study, funded by The California Endowment, says that had local school district 7 of the Los Angeles Unified School District increased the use of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Supports (SWPBS) policies by just 50 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, about one-third of its school suspensions could have been prevented, saving the district about 31 days of teaching time and around 93 days of administrative time in the process.

Additionally, had the 36 middle and high schools with publicly available suspension data from the California Department of Education increased their implementation of PBIS policies by half during the 2009-2010 school year, researchers predicted that more than 1,500 out of school suspensions would have been prevented, with 65 days of teaching time and almost 200 full days of administrative time saved as a result.

Photo: flickr, Stevendepolo

Boys of Color in Harm's Way

"Negative health outcomes for African-American and Latino boys and young men are a result of growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, places that are more likely to put boys and young men directly in harm’s way and reinforce harmful behavior." That's the key finding from the report entitled: "Healthy Communities Matter: The Importance of Place to the Health of Boys of Color."

The report, which is filled with facts and figures and underwritten by The California Endowment, finds:

  • When it comes to health and other outcomes, the odds for boys and men of color are more than two times worse than they are for white boys and men in California.
  • African-American and Latino children are 3.5 times more likely to grow up in poverty than their white counterparts. In fact, nearly half of the nation’s African-American and Latino fourth graders attend schools that are characterized by extreme poverty.
  • Nationally, the risk of contracting HIV or AIDS is 6.9 times higher for African-American male adults and adolescents than for whites. Latinos are 3.1 times more likely.
  • Young African-American men (15-24) have a homicide death rate at least 16 times greater than that of young white men, and young Latino men have homicide death rate 5 times greater than that of young white men.

The report's conclusion holds:

As a society, we place great emphasis on the personal responsibility of the individual, and our families and institutions should do everything they can to instill in all of our boys and young men a strong sense of self-worth, hope and accountability. But if we expect our children to climb over poverty’s great barriers without help from the rest of us, then we are the ones who are being irresponsible. Because the problems facing African-American and Latino boys and young men are so complex and interwoven, we must put a premium on solutions that establish and strengthen a web of support for them.

Improving the places where our boys and young men of color live, learn, work and play is no easy undertaking. But it is doable. And that makes it the right thing to do.