At the beginning of this month, supervisors from Contra Costa County said that they intend to change the county’s juvenile justice system for the better. During a meeting which lasted nearly 12 hours and featured presentations from multiple agencies, supervisors said that they expect county officials to collaborate and decide whether to close either Juvenile Hall in Martinez or the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility near Byron.
While officials remain divided on the path to resolution, they all agree that achieving the best outcomes for young people in Contra Costa County is their top priority, according to Bay City News. They say that their decision will be part of a larger dialogue seeking to reimagine youth justice in the area. Several of the supervisors stated that they expect Chief Probation Officer Esa Ehmen-Krause and District Attorney Diana Becton to work with others on a task force regarding this issue.
Alternatives to Juvenile Hall
Many members of the public have raised the idea of redirecting law enforcement funds to non-police mental health crisis response. Contra Costa supervisors praised this program, although they have not yet stated whether they intend to allocate funds from the sheriff’s budget to this end.
“The task force is more than about Juvenile Hall,” said Supervisor John Gioia. “It’s about the system.” Elected officials cite increased demand to redirect funding from law enforcement to instead support affordable housing, mental health, homeless outreach, and youth support services.
“I have stood for years and watched families wither in the face of the juvenile justice system,” stated Deputy Public Defender Nicole Eiland. “We want to keep our children out of trauma-inducing facilities like Juvenile Hall.”
California: Juvenile Hall by the Numbers
Over the past ten years, the number of children behind bars has decreased dramatically from the record high of the 1990s. This is partially due to a dismantling of the punitive approach to youth offenses. Instead, efforts have recently shifted to prevention in the form of social programming, early intervention, and outreach.
In Contra Costa County, the juvenile detention population has steadily decreased since 2002. This is a welcome deviation from the predicted “crime wave” officials threatened in the 1990s, a scare tactic which ultimately resulted in:
- $750 million allocated to the construction of new juvenile facilities
- California’s three-strikes law, which could send a person with three felonies away for life, and
- A 2000 ballot initiative that made it easier for children to be tried as adults with harsher minimum sentences.
Fortunately, this crime wave never materialized. In fact, juvenile crime has decreased steadily since the mid ‘90s – a trend which seems poised to continue. Felonies, infractions, and misdemeanors fall year over year. Today, officials intend to allocate these heavy punitive budgets towards preventative efforts, including providing first-time youth offenders with anger management, substance abuse treatment, and connection with social services.
This is an important change, because evidence shows that sustained juvenile detention can have a negative impact on a child’s future, mental health, and quality of life.
The Effects of Youth Confinement
According to federal guidelines, “the purpose of juvenile detention is to confine only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders… pending legal action. Based on these criteria, it is not considered appropriate for status offenders and youth that commit technical violations of probation.” In spite of this, nearly 4,000 youth are held in juvenile detention centers for low-level offenses. National leaders in the field of juvenile justice support the prohibition of juvenile detention as a dispositional option.
Research shows that adult-style prisons – which many youth facilities are modeled after – lack the essentials required for healthy adolescent development. Young people require engaged adults focused on their development, a peer group which models prosocial behavior, activities which foster positive decision-making, and opportunities for academic success. They also may be exposed to further trauma as a result of incarceration, which can serve to reinforce poor choices and impulsive behavior. Experts say that instead of helping kids to get back on track, youth incarceration may result in the exacerbation of the negative behaviors which brought these children to the attention of the courts in the first place.
With change on the horizon for Contra Costa County, it is hoped that other California systems will seek to begin further juvenile justice reform efforts.
Orange County Juvenile Defense Attorney
If your child is facing legal difficulties, please contact the Law Offices of Katie Walsh. Attorney Walsh utilizes her years of experience as a former prosecutor to advocate for your child and achieve the best possible outcome.