In summary

If we want to address the racial injustice of the system and support all of California’s young people to succeed, we must think and act differently.

By Chet P. Hewitt and Shane Murphy Goldsmith, Special to CalMatters

Chet P. Hewitt is president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, impact@shfcenter.org. Shane Murphy Goldsmith is president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation, CFBMOC@libertyhill.org. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others to state violence has ignited a global uprising against racism in all its forms. It also has given new momentum to the fight for justice for black and brown communities across California, with a call to revolutionize our justice systems. 

Here in California, we have a critical window to ensure fair and equal opportunity for our young people – and we must seize this moment to make real change. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for an end to California’s youth prison system. This was the right decision. After nearly two decades of work by advocates and organizers, the governor is delivering on his promise to “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.”

There is no doubt that our justice system is failing youth, particularly black youth. If we want to address the racial injustice of the system and support all of California’s young people to succeed, we must think and act differently. 

That’s what’s happening in Los Angeles County; thanks to an effective collaboration among organizers and government leaders, the county has closed nine youth jails since 2017 and redirected more than $60 million in funds to community-based programs, which have succeeded in reducing youth arrests by 30% and youth incarceration by 50%. The county also overhauled its juvenile justice coordinating council to add systems-impacted young people. These council members now oversee a $30 million annual spending plan.

The sea change in Los Angeles County is all the more significant given that its probation department is the largest in the country if not the world in staff size, budget and client population. 

California, as well as counties across the state, can learn from L.A. County’s approach: Listen to advocates, organizers and directly impacted young people; move dollars away from costly punishment and law enforcement into cost-effective prevention and community care; and bring all sectors together to build a youth development system that prioritizes education, health, housing, trauma-informed care and more. 

Instead, the governor’s budget proposal would provide more than $220 million in unrestricted funds to county probation departments, which are law enforcement agencies. Developed hastily in the course of a difficult budget environment, this plan invests in punishment of black and brown youth at the local level instead of in health-based community supports that play a proven role in keeping young people out of the system in the first place. California should follow the lead of other states that have successfully turned to non-law enforcement based programs to address the needs of youth. 

This is not a time to pour more money into an outdated criminal justice system that drains resources and has failed black and brown youth. Rather, California must take the time to develop a plan that truly serves the complex needs of young people. 

Shuttering the Department of Juvenile Justice, while necessary, requires careful consideration of a range of policies and practices. For example, the state should consider repurposing the advisory committee of the California Department of Youth and Community Restoration to ensure that community voices are driving the process.  

There should be strong oversight of what counties are doing, including new statewide systems for data collection and reporting. Counties also must not use any new authority under realignment to transfer more young people to adult prisons. Last but not least, simply moving funds from youth prisons at the state level to youth prisons at the local level isn’t real change. Deferring to probation instead of community leaders won’t lead to transformation – or real answers to the challenges young people and their families face.

Young people must get the community-based care they deserve. We applaud the governor’s commitment to change – and we strongly encourage him and the Legislature to take the time needed to get it right. The lives of California’s young people are too precious to put at risk by doing business as usual.

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Chet P. Hewitt is president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, impact@shfcenter.org. Shane Murphy Goldsmith is president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation, CFBMOC@libertyhill.org. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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