First partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom, Dutch, Brooklynn, Montana, Hunter and California Gov. Gavin Newsom wave to the crowd after being sworn in as the 40th governor of California in front of the California State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 in Sacramento, Calif. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to remove California Juvenile Justice Division from corrections officials’ control

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that he intends to shift control of the state’s Juvenile Justice Division away from corrections officials to government health and human services providers, a move he said is long overdue and would build on past efforts to divert children and teens from a path to prison.

Under the proposal, first unveiled as part of his January budget, the California Health and Human Services Agency would oversee more than 660 young offenders, the vast majority held at a camp in Pine Grove and three detention centers in Stockton and Camarillo. It is a small population compared with the more than 39,000 young people detained in juvenile halls across the state and the hardest to serve because of the serious charges and the mental and medical health needs that they face.

Corrections and health and human services leaders say the plan heralds a cultural change in the state’s approach to the youngest in the justice system, creating chances to better bridge educational, mental health and social services to prepare minors for release.

But probation officers, health care professionals and community activists who have long been at the forefront of a push to shut down youth detention centers and improve treatment are wary that the changes could merely be symbolic _ or worse, halt progress that they say has led to fewer young people in custody.

Touring one of the facilities in Stockton on Wednesday, Newsom sought to assuage concerns and said he hopes to initiate the transfer as early as July with approval from the Legislature.

He pointed to pre-apprentice construction labor programs and new computer coding classes as the type of initiatives that allow young inmates to learn new work and life skills behind bars and would be expanded under the new health and human services framework.

“This is about setting a new mark,” he told an audience of elected officials, reporters and young inmates. “We are committed about ending the juvenile justice system as we know it once and for all …. We are going to focus on what’s right, not just focus on what’s wrong.”

California’s first-ever surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who was appointed on Monday, said the new model would allow health officials to move toward one centered on addressing early childhood trauma and preventing children from falling into the justice system in the first place.

“Really looking at what we can do for our young folks who are most vulnerable is really critical,” said Burke Harris, who plans to begin her term with a listening tour across the state to hear about residents’ health care concerns.

But many questions remain about the implementation of Newsom’s proposal and its day-to-day operations, including the role of corrections-trained youth counselors and pay and work benefits for officers already inside the detention facilities.

“There are still a lot of questions about a lot of people,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz.

Still, the principal mission is clear, he added, “to expand the rehabilitative efforts that are currently going on in the department of juvenile justice.”

California is one of only 10 states that houses its juvenile justice division under a state corrections agency. Roughly 40 states have moved juvenile justice to health and human services or child welfare departments. Another 17, including Texas, Florida and Washington, D.C., have made their divisions independent entities.

California’s juvenile justice system has seen a dramatic transformation over the past 15 years. Bipartisan efforts by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers in 2005 reshuffled the beleaguered California Youth Authority, which at its peak housed 10,000 juveniles, after a decade of criticism and lawsuits over 23-hour lockdowns, beatings by staff and the caging of children.

Emphasis was placed on rehabilitation, eight of 11 once-overcrowded youth facilities were ultimately shuttered and control of youth detention was shifted to county probation departments under realignment, a plan passed by the Legislature in 2007 that became the blueprint for Gov. Jerry Brown to reorganize the adult prison system years later.

Roughly 90 percent of young people in detention are now confined to county juvenile halls closer to their homes and families. The state’s Juvenile Justice Division, under the $12-million California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, detains only teens and young adults with the most serious charges and the greatest needs, a population of mostly black and Latino teens ages 17 and 18.

Unlike adults in prison, young inmates released from corrections facilities are not paroled into the community but returned to local juvenile halls, where probation chiefs across the state say they have been working on improving rehabilitation programs. It’s unclear what the new release process would look like under Newsom’s plan.

“The devil is going to be in the details,” said Dominique Nong, senior policy associate at the California branch of the child advocacy nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund. “When you change the home of the (Juvenile Justice Division), it doesn’t necessarily change the practices, but it does create opportunities to change them.”

Probation chiefs said they were concerned about how Newsom’s proposal could affect strides made in the past decade to ensure that programs for released youth are based on accountability and research.

“There are significant operational concerns that could adversely affect the great movement we have made,” said Chief Stephanie James, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. “As experts in juvenile justice and evidence-based practices, we look forward to working with the administration and Legislature to ensure any change in juvenile justice continues to move California in a safer and fairer direction.”

Community groups and probation officers say they are concerned because they remember the decline of the California Youth Authority and the rise of punitive measures toward the most vulnerable in the system. Soaring crime in the 1980s and ’90s fueled a tough-on-crime approach that included longer sentences, the transfer of young people into the adult system and the adoption of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

Researchers at the time believed teens’ brains were fully developed, and public attention tended to focus on so-called superpredators, youths believed to be prone to violent crime because of how they were raised. The studies have since been debunked; new research has shown that adolescent brains have not fully matured and that court practices and fines disproportionately affect low-income and black and Latino children.

California voters have largely agreed, helping spur a shift in how young defendants are treated in the justice system. Proposition 57, a 2016 law that has overhauled the state parole system, prohibits prosecutors from charging youths in adult court without a judge’s approval. The California Supreme Court, affirming a lower court ruling in February, found that provision could retroactively apply to pending cases.

Over the past two years, Brown signed legislation to aid young people facing charges and serving time, a victory for a statewide coalition of criminal justice groups that brought together celebrities and former youth offenders in a push to divert children from a path to prison. The new laws crafted by state Sens. Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara, both Democrats, increased parole opportunities and eased punishment for people who committed crimes as children or teens. They allow courts to seal certain juvenile records and limit the administrative fees that counties charge families with children in juvenile detention.

-By Jazmine Ulloa, Los Angeles Times

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