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California Tries — With Difficulty — to Implement 2 Major New Laws to Help Sex-Trafficked Kids

California is attempting to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters. But despite the passage of two important and well-intentioned new laws in the last two years, both of which affect youth who have been sexually exploited, change has not come easily or quickly.

The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services. After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar. Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.

“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.

Decriminalizing kids

Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.

The first step toward decriminalization of sex trafficked children was SB 855, signed in June 2014, which required the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to be officially recognized as child abuse. It also allocated $14 million in funding for CSEC training for county and foster care workers and implementation of support programs. However, despite the passage of this earlier law, youth sex trafficking victims were still viewed by many police primarily as lawbreakers.

Next came Senate Bill 1322, which bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.

But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another. On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California

Cultural change is a major part of implementation, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.

The 2014 bill, SB 855, marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, Heimov said. It also helped by allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local CSEC training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for the victimized youth.

But while SB 855 was a step in the right direction, it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said. “Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”

The glacial pace of cultural change

Now, even with the newer law, SB 1322, in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.

“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”

Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime, the other is the peace officer or safety role.

So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime. They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”

Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.

“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.

Maheen Kaleem

Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.

“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.

In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.

Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.

Johanna Gendelman

In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agency hotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.

“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics. And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.” Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.

Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.

“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it's a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].” The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”

With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.

Changing the before and after of child sexual trafficking

According to the California Child Welfare Council, a high percentage of youth who fall prey to sexual exploitation had prior involvement with the child welfare system, very often in group homes.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system. Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.

With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.

However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.  

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes. Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”

While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.

“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.

According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:

  1. The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
  2. The Resource Family Approval process for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
  3. Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.

Goal 1: Making the shift to STRTPs

“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”

In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.

“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.

Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.

(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)

There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.

“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.

And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.

According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.

Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.

Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.

But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.

Which brings us to the second and third goals.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks at an event in October 2015.

Goals 2 and 3: Resources and families

Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.

Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.

His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.

But finding families isn’t easy.  And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.

“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”

As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.

According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.

The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.

But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”

Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.

Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important.  But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.  

Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.

Scaling the model  

The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.

“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.

In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources.  But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.

The legal side

Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.

“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.

“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.

“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.” At least, she said “we truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

This story has been updated.

This story was a cooperative effort among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's Los Angeles bureau, the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and WitnessLA.

Juvenile Probation’s Day in the Sun Rebuts the Stereotypes

In these challenging economic times when the value of every governmental entity and its budgetary support is under serious consideration, the efficacy of the services provided by juvenile probation departments is included in that scope of examination. We must recognize that statistics alone cannot adequately portray the positive impact effective probation officers can have upon reforming delinquent behaviors. It is through the positive interactions probation officers establish with juvenile probationers that the greatest pathway to comprehensive reform is forged.

The following story was written several years ago. It is only one of thousands more that need to be told to properly “season” those spreadsheet and balance sheet portrayals of juvenile probation departments’ value to the juvenile justice system.

Probation is a derivative of the Latin word “probare” meaning “to prove.” It is defined today in its simplest form as personal freedom based upon the promise of reform. Juveniles granted probation by a juvenile court judge for having committed delinquent acts are assigned a probation officer to help them keep their promise. That probation officer is responsible for ensuring the public’s safety in the short term through the close monitoring of the youth’s whereabouts and activities and for ensuring the public’s safety in the long term by engaging the youth with programs designed to elevate social competencies leading to productive lifestyles.

Often maligned as an ineffective remedy with undetectable success, stories evidencing the prudent use of this sentencing option are seldom told. Instead the public’s default opinion of probation is formed by mirages of lightly slapped wrists and unchecked behaviors. As a rebuttal to this outdated misconception, I offer an eyewitness account of a past event organized by the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department that helped a group of 60-plus juvenile probationers fulfill their promise of reform.

At a time when all too many broken promises are revealed daily through the subsequent crimes committed by recidivists, the public’s attention is easily diverted away from those youth who are sincere in their resolve and efforts to maintain good faith. On a Wednesday one August, the eyes of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department were fixed upon a group of its model probationers in an unprecedented way that celebrated the youths’ completion of the Mayor’s Safe Summer ’06 Program and affirmed their steady course toward productive citizenship.

Anchored by the gracious generosity of the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the Deputy Probation Officers Association, City Youth Now and Muni, a core group of juvenile probation officers strategically planned and organized a day trip for probation youth that involved a chartered boat ride and lunch at the San Francisco Bay.

Its sole purpose was to celebrate the youths’ success in satisfying their conditions of probation and for completing the summer youth employment program, designed by the Mayor’s Office and supported by the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, the Recreation and Park Department and MYEEP. It was clear to the youth that the entire city family of agencies and departments joined together in celebration.

The hidden agenda for the trip, however, was a heavy dose of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement of the juveniles’ behavioral adjustment. Positive reinforcement of the probation officers’ enriched professional relationships with their probationers.

From the very outset the officers and juveniles had fun both dispensing and consuming the obligatory words of caution and behavioral admonishments that preceded the boarding of the busses and the boat. Each group clearly understood that such warnings were customary for any event of this kind. During the entire cruise they were openly solicitous of each other’s attention. Conversations flowed freely about music, school, sports, clothes and career plans.

Life after probation was a popular theme. The youth seemed relaxed, comforted and secure in this setting, wide open to casual discussion with each other and the adults in their midst, which included roving youth employment recruiters. The probation officers portrayed similar satisfaction with the venue, most comfortable with their new portable roles as cruise directors, program emcees, raffle announcers, deck attendants and pursers.

During the entire flawless event, staged under sunny skies, my eyes were fixed upon the eyes of the youth and their probation officers. Each set reflected the true excitement of a new experience and a new vision. Both groups were noticeably content with the prospect of a temporary escape from neighborhood unrest and office routine. Originally linked by statutory duty and court order, the two groups were now united on a more personal and pro-social plane than ever before. It was evident. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.

Official certificates of successful achievement that had been carefully designed and prepared by the planning committee were presented to each youth in a sealed manila envelope to ensure the likelihood it would safely reach a place of honor at home. A few lucky winners of gift cards and Giants tickets had those prizes already tucked in their jeans. And finally, an orange rubberized wrist band inscribed with “JPD Safe Summer Event ’06” was given to every tour member as an added souvenir of the day.

The most significant souvenir that everybody walked the plank with upon their return to shore was the shared memory of renewed hope and strengthened commitment. Hope and commitment to satisfying a promise of reform. Hope and commitment to facilitating the promise of reform. These memories would leave indelible impressions.

The event I witnessed on this bright, sunny San Francisco day could have involved any number of well-behaved adolescents ringed by a complementary cohort of attentive mentors. Such is the case for the more traditional groups that visit the Bay and that any number of sponsors would line up to finance such an excursion for based solely on the entertainment value.

But none of these other groups would have benefited as significantly as the two groups I was privileged to accompany that particular day. It was our day. It was a day reserved for our well-behaved probationers and for our attentive juvenile probation officers and staff. It was our unusually bright day in the midst of many dark days of late. It was our day to celebrate the successes attached to fulfilling the promise of reform, the purpose of probation. It truly was our day. It was the SFJPD’s Day in the Sun with our probationers.

Bill Siffermann is a retired chief juvenile probation officer from San Francisco. His career as a juvenile probation officer began in 1970 in Cook County (Chicago), where he spent 34 years in progressively responsible positions overseeing delinquency caseloads, preadjudicatory diversion, intensive supervision programs and, as deputy director, co-led Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), which was later selected as one of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s National Model Sites. In 2005 he was selected as San Francisco’s chief juvenile probation officer, where he continued to advance the principles of detention reform. Retiring in 2013, his work in juvenile justice continues as a consultant.

Plummeting Youth Crime Demands New Solutions, Thinking

In 1990, in California’s 15 largest cities, 373 youths (in a population ages 10 to 17 of 850,000) were arrested for homicide. In 2015, in those same cities (now with 1.1 million youth), 21 youths were arrested for homicide — a rate decline of 94 percent.

Over the last 25 years, gun killings of teenagers in California’s urban centers fell nearly 80 percent; in New York City, they declined by 90 percent.

Such impossible decreases look like typos, but they’re real. They are repeated in city after city and state after state, where growing, racially diversifying youth populations accompany astonishing reductions in crime and other serious problems.

The millennial generation, forecast to bring “adolescent superpredators,” instead brought a stunning anti-crime revolution that challenges long-held assumptions.

From 1990 to 2016, juvenile arrest rates declined by 73 percent nationally, including large declines in all reporting states. Arrests for violent offenses plunged by two-thirds. Homicide arrests of youth decreased from nearly 4,000 per year in the early 1990s to under 900 in 2016. Twenty of the 35 reporting states – including California, Texas, New Jersey, and Michigan – saw youth homicide arrests plunge 75 percent or more.

In California, a harbinger of national trends, the justice system is rapidly disappearing from young lives. As the youth population grew by one million from 1980 to 2016 and became increasingly diverse, juvenile arrests plummeted from 286,000 to 63,000. All offenses — felony, misdemeanor and status — have fallen to all-time lows. California’s state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, has seen its budget cut 70 percent since 1995 as youth incarceration dropped 93 percent and eight of 11 state detention facilities closed. In juvenile halls and camps, more than 7,000 beds lie empty.

No one knows why these hugely encouraging trends are happening. Instead, we’re seeing more recycled "teenage brain” and “adolescent risk" nonsense of the type that has proven devastatingly wrong and perpetrated destructive policies. Like a Greek play with predetermined lines marching to inevitable tragedy, we let outmoded agendas and prejudices stifle honest debate again and again.


Figure 1. Declining rates of criminal arrests of youth (under age 18) by state, 2016 v 1996 (includes all violent, property, drug, sex, other felonies and misdemeanors, and status offenses).

Source:  FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1995, 2016.  Notes: This figure includes the 35 states with reports to UCR for both 1996 and 2016. Arrest totals are adjusted by the proportion of jurisdictions reporting to UCR by state and year. U.S. Bureau of the Census data for populations ages 10-17 are used to calculate rates.


Even though 21 percent of teens live in poverty compared to 11 percent of middle-agers, more Californians age 40-49 (186,000 in 2015) and 50-59 (128,000) are now getting arrested for felonies and misdemeanors than those under age 20 (123,000 in 2015; 105,000 in 2016). Adolescents can no longer be called “crime-prone.” Crime rates among 18- to 19-year-olds resemble those of 35-year-olds; age 15-17 is like 50.

It’s a whole new world. How are authorities responding to the youth crime revolution’s exciting new opportunities? The prevailing view pretends the decadeslong plummet in crime by youth isn’t happening; that crime, guns and violence remain youthful stupidities. Reading major reports and commentaries these days is like retreating 20, 50, even 100 years into the past.

As teenage crime falls to historic lows, backwards-looking interests are reviving 19th-century myths that “teenage brains are neurologically wired" and “biologically driven" to crime and risk as some "new science." Malarkey. Real scientific reviews show that the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) underlying “brain science” cannot be reliably interpreted or replicated, invalidating thousands of studies.

The premature embrace of poorly grounded psychological and biological notions has the potential to harmfully expand youth and young adult detention by justifying investment in new and “better” lock-ups. For example, California hired a private firm (Campbell Consulting) to rehash developmental clichés and recommend yet another set of “therapeutic” prisons while ignoring young people’s massive crime drop.

Demeaning all 60 million youth and young adults as brain-miswired criminals in order to win lenient treatment for the dwindling few who commit serious crimes isn’t reform — it’s demagoguery. Self-flatteries that “adolescents are not like adults,” while great fun at conference workshops, dodge the uncomfortable reality that crime by youth is a function of adult-imposed poverty, abuse and its trauma sequelae, and troubled caretakers, not being young.

The few commentators who admit real-life trends typically credit their local initiative or pet solution. However, we now see there was no unique Minneapolis gun-violence reduction or “Boston Miracle.” (Nor can my group take credit for the unheralded “San Francisco miracle:” juvenile murders down 80 percent from 1992 to 1999, including 15 months with zero under-16 gun killings). Crime and shootings among youth fell substantially everywhere regardless of what locals did.

The behavior of young people themselves brought down crime and boosted education achievement dramatically. How else do we explain huge drops in youth crime, violence, murder and gun killings in Idaho and Connecticut, West Virginia and Washington, Oklahoma and California, New Jersey and Utah — states with widely varying conditions and policies? We elders did little to relieve unconscionable youth poverty, student debt and addiction and crime epidemics afflicting their parents. Grabbing credit for improvements sabotages reasoned evaluation.

This isn’t “superpredator” 1995, “broken-windows” 1982 or “biological-determinism” 1895. Is the adult brain capable of comprehending changed realities, or is it doomed to lag decades behind, indulging cosmetic system-tinkerings and pleasing orthodoxies to preserve archaic institutions?

Of course we can change. Biological determinism doesn’t dictate thinking, young or old. We need the dynamic, modern discourse 2017’s young people deserve.

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”

Selena Teji On California’s Broken Juvenile Detention System

In 1858, the San Francisco Industrial School, California’s first large juvenile facility opened its doors and ushered in a new era of large dormitory-style institutions that would plague California to the present day.  Rife with scandal, abuse, violence and a significant deficit of programming, congregate care institutions have proven a failed model since the 19th century. While Missouri and Washington have abandoned this broken system and rebuilt their juvenile justice systems anew, focusing on smaller therapeutic regional facilities; California continues to fixate on an archaic system with large training schools that cannot be repaired.

Currently, California operates a dual system of juvenile justice -- probation, group homes, ranches and camps are provided by its 58 counties, while the state provides youth prisons reserved for adolescents who have committed a serious or violent offense as defined in the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code.

All parole and reentry services are provided by the counties. Currently, there are only 1,193 youths housed at the state level, approximately 190 of them are juveniles tried as adults but who are too young to be housed in adult prison.

The state youth prisons, operated by the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF, formerly the California Youth Authority), have a devastating history. In 1996, California housed approximately 10,000 juveniles in its youth prisons, at more than 150 percent its capacity. As with all overcrowded correctional institutions nation-wide, these facilities were rampant with violence, gang activity and abuse. Programming was minimal, and suicide rates were high.

In 2003, after a string of investigations and public outcry, a lawsuit was brought against the state demanding it improve its conditions to a constitutionally-mandated level of care. This was followed in 2007 by Senate Bill 81, requiring that only the highest risk offenders could be housed in the state facilities, resulting in a dramatic decrease in its population, to 1,193 youth today.

Seven years after the court ordered the state to reform its facilities, California is still struggling to meet its mandate. While progress has been made in reducing its population and improving its medical care, many of the needed reforms have not happened.

 According to a recent 2011 audit, incarcerated youth with mental health needs are receiving education in closets, showers and storerooms due to inadequate staffing and high levels of ward violence, if they receive education at all. Many youth are housed in confinement for 23 hours at a time, violating institutional policies and “willfully disobeying” the court’s order. On Oct. 27, 2011, the court will decide if DJF will be held in contempt of court for its continued inappropriate use of isolation.

Since the 1980's, California has known that the optimal way to serve this high-risk youth population is to deliver programs locally and in smaller facilities. Individual counties such as San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz have already developed and implemented effective interventions locally and currently serve this population with high rates of success. By innovative use of Medicaid funding for example, San Francisco County has been able to provide specialized mental health services to at-risk youth, avoiding reliance on incarceration or out-of-home placement.

The state, the courts, national experts and advocates all agreed on what is needed. A model juvenile justice system emphasizes alternatives to incarceration, local community-based services and evidence-based programs that target the highest-needs youth. Individual counties should collaborate to provide a cohesive and consistent approach to juvenile justice statewide, and California's state role should be limited to monitoring, funding and coordinating these county efforts.

Why then has it not happened? In February of this year Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the elimination of the DJF and realignment of all juvenile offenders to the counties. However, concern about county capacity fueled by interest groups such as the California District Attorneys Association, and an ingrained institutional culture has prevented California from breaking the cycle of youth incarceration and state-dependence.  Rather, California continues to invest in an archaic and harmful state-managed juvenile justice system in the hopes that it can be reformed, at the annual cost of more than $224,000 per incarcerated youth.

California is clinging to a broken and irreparable system. Instead, it should abandon the derelict institutional model, and build a more meaningful and responsible approach to change.