California’s Juvenile Justice System Realignment: Key Considerations for Implementation

California’s Juvenile Justice System Realignment: Key Considerations for Implementation

July 22, 2020

by Alison Hamburg, MPA, MPH

The 2020-2021 California State Budget will realign the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), transitioning responsibility to local jurisdictions for youth sentenced to DJJ facilities. While details of the realignment are still to be determined, this change represents a major shift in California’s juvenile justice system.

Transferring responsibility to counties for most youth adjudicated for serious offenses is an important stride toward reducing youth incarceration, keeping youth closer to home, and shifting to community-based solutions. At the same time, a cross-system analysis recognizes the potential impacts and challenges that California counties will face during the transition process. In many ways, realigning DJJ poses challenges similar to those experienced after California’s 2011 public safety realignment. The following considerations can inform planning for DJJ realignment implementation:

  • County juvenile justice systems were not designed to serve youth currently held at DJJ, who are typically older, have higher needs, and are serving longer sentences than youth served locally. The average length of time youth spend in DJJ is two years, and in some cases is much longer. County juvenile detention centers are not appropriate facilities to provide rehabilitative services for long time periods. Counties will need to develop high-quality residential programs that have a therapeutic environment and offer higher education, treatment and therapy, and vocational training.
  • Achieving the desired goal of keeping high-risk and high-need youth in their communities will necessitate high quality community-based programs. Research clearly shows that for most youth, evidence-based treatment in the community is most effective in addressing their behavioral and mental health needs and preventing future contact with the justice system. Serving youth locally helps them remain closer to natural supports and community-based services.
  • Counties will need to avoid transferring more youth to the adult system. Currently, youth who commit serious offenses before the age of 18 can remain in DJJ facilities until age 25. Without the DJJ option, there is the potential that prosecutors will charge more youth as adults and they will be placed in the adult system, with far fewer age-appropriate services.
  • The communities that will be most affected by the DJJ realignment are also most impacted by disparities in access to health, education, and economic resources. Communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx communities, have long faced systemic racism, resulting in disproportionate representation in the justice system, as well as higher rates of poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges, violence, and community trauma. In order to move toward equity, policy changes in the criminal and juvenile justice arena must be matched with systems change efforts across sectors, and with cultural changes to uncover unconscious biases and uproot systemic racism.

The success of DJJ realignment rests on local justice systems’ capacity to implement evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice and take a holistic view to address systemic inequities. While the Governor’s May Revision indicated that a portion of state savings would be routed to local probation departments, in the face of statewide budget cuts, it is not clear that adequate resources will be available to counties. In this context, it will be necessary for justice system partners from the arenas of health, social services, and community-based partners to work collaboratively toward solutions. Regional partnerships can be used to leverage resources to provide a robust array of programming.

With significant experience in local justice system change efforts across the state, RDA is well-positioned to support counties in planning for and evaluating this substantial transition. If you would like to explore this option, please contact us.

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