State Juvenile Prison System Winds Down as County Systems Gear Up

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Among the facilities set to close is the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, CA. Photo Credit: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

STOCKTON, Calif. — California is putting the final touches on longstanding plans to close the state’s juvenile prisons and start serving all justice-involved youth at the county level.

The last three state juvenile facilities, two in Stockton and one in Ventura, will stop accepting new youths on July 1, and close in 2023.

Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice based in San Francisco, said rehabilitation efforts work best at the local level.

“They can start working with the kid’s family, working with the kid’s neighborhood,” Macallair suggested. “And addressing those issues that really impact long-term behavior. You can’t do that in an isolated facility that might be hundreds of miles from their home.”

Many kids who end up behind bars have experienced abuse, poverty and abandonment, so the new system will not focus on punishment but emphasize counseling, skills training and programs such as restorative justice that help kids turn their lives around.

Macallair pointed out eight state juvenile prisons already have closed down in recent decades as the number of youths locked up in California dropped dramatically.

“We’re down from 10,000 in 1996 to about 700 today,” Macallair noted. “And what happened during that time period? The most dramatic drop in youth crime in state history.”

Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate in the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the decrepit state juvenile facilities, which were built in the sixties, have issues with gang violence and are no place for a young person.

“They shouldn’t be sent to a cage, a miniature adult maximum-security prisons,” Calvin argued. “Concrete walls, bars, small windows, where the message is, ‘You’re a criminal, and this is all you deserve.'”

Senate Bill 823, signed last fall, ensures counties can offer the full range of services to youths in their care.