The Lessons of California for Juvenile Justice Reform

Those who equate juvenile justice reform with better institutions should consider the California lesson. For the past 13 years, the state’s youth correctional system operated under court monitoring due to its failure to provide rehabilitative services or a safe environment.

The “Farrell lawsuit,” brought by the Prison Law Office, cited a list of institutional abuses that have plagued the American juvenile justice system since the 19th century. Rather than places of rehabilitation, California youth correctional facilities were institutions of rampant violence, abuse and mismanagement. The lawsuit demanded that the state make changes to eliminate the violence and promote a rehabilitative environment.

This past February, the Farrell lawsuit came to an end, with both sides declaring success and promising a new era in California youth corrections. Almost immediately, the state’s youth corrections system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), dispatched staff to California juvenile courts and county departments to urge increased commitments.

Since the state institutions had long been used as a convenient dumping ground for challenging, high-needs youth by many county juvenile justice systems, the impact was almost immediate. With DJJ collaborating with district attorneys and probation staff to convince judges that the facilities were truly reformed, our agency, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), began receiving alarming reports from juvenile defenders throughout the state about unprecedented increases in DJJ recommendations and commitments.

The tendency for juvenile courts to increase institutional commitments after a period of reform is a common pattern in state history. During the 1950s and ’60s, when California’s youth corrections system conveyed a similar image of progressive reform, juvenile courts responded with a flood of new commitments. The system was soon overwhelmed, and the image of well-run institutions that had been assiduously fostered by state corrections leaders proved false and unachievable.

A fundamental reality often forgotten by juvenile justice reformers is that institutional changes are short-lived and staff quickly slide back into conventional, disciplinary practices. This fact is again revealing itself in California, as youth recently released from DJJ tell all too familiar stories of gang warfare, rampant violence, staff brutality and administrative indifference.

To counter this bleak reality, DJJ aggressively promotes itself through juvenile court testimony, presentations to county officials and carefully orchestrated tours designed to foster an image of progressive treatment. DJJ facility visitors are greeted by a team of senior management and professional staff who employ therapeutic language and a polished demeanor to convey confidence and reassurance. They are then escorted to the living units and invited to speak with selected youth under the watch of facility staff. Youth describe how, prior to these tours, they are instructed to respond positively whenever questioned. Failure to properly respond can result in consequences later.

The resilience of institutions to resist change should never be underestimated. California offers a lesson on the limitations of lawsuits to permanently alter institutional realities. By focusing on a narrow range of institutional deficits, the Farrell lawsuit actually served to legitimize the existing system and laid the foundation for its regeneration.

Under conditions lawsuits, success is measured by marginal improvements in institutional functioning. The Farrell lawsuit achieved important objectives, such as reducing the number of youth denied access to education, but left the larger system intact. During the period that the institutions were subject to court oversight, normal routines and practices were temporarily disrupted, but are now quickly re-emerging as the scrutiny is lifted — a pattern very common in California youth corrections history.

Ultimately, the Farrell lawsuit pitted proponents of conditions reform against advocates for institutional closure. With declining youth crime rates, a shrinking pool of DJJ-eligible youth and an oversupply of county institutional beds, California policy experts called for the closure of the three remaining DJJ facilities. Those experts included the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which issued reports in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

These proposals were vigorously opposed by institutional advocates who sought to define reform in the context of improved institutional conditions. With support from the corrections establishment, institutional supporters prevailed, and the stage is now set for a resurgence of the state system. A recent proposal by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to rebuild DJJ institutions is now being promoted as reform.

California’s lesson to juvenile justice reformers is that correctional institutions are impervious to change and that the best reforms are those that keep youth out of institutions. Despite years of efforts to inject new treatment strategies, improve education and broaden vocational training, violence in California institutions remains as pervasive as ever, and numerous anecdotal accounts from youth reflect DJJ’s systemic failures across all aspects of daily institutional life.

The continued reliance on old, institutional structures simply ensures that the mistakes of the past will be the failures of the future. The best insurance against repeating history is to bring an end to the bankrupt system of state correctional institutions and place responsibility and resources for treating youth in the hands of their local communities.

By Daniel Macallair | September 26, 2016


Daniel Macallair is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a Practitioner in Residence in the Criminal Justice Studies program at San Francisco State University. He is the author of a new book, “After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of 21st Century Reform.”

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