California can lead the nation in science-based juvenile justice solutions

By Stephanie James, special to CalMatters

California’s juvenile justice system has evolved as we have learned more about brain development, the effects of adverse childhood experiences and social, emotional, and mental health needs of our young people.

While ensuring community safety, we have moved away from the old norms of an overly punitive system to one that follows research and science to fulfill the statutorily stated mission of juvenile justice: rehabilitation.

I have worked with San Joaquin County probation for 25 years and served as chief since 2012. In that time, I have spent time with thousands of youths, supervising a caseload and being the Superintendent of Juvenile and Camp Peterson. 

When I was the superintendent, I learned in great detail about the youth we were serving. It was painfully obvious to me that they experienced challenges and trauma that my own children had never known, and that they needed counseling and support services that would help them through those challenges. 

Since 2007, California’s juvenile justice system, led by local probation departments, has successfully decreased juvenile detention rates by 60% and juvenile arrest rates by 73%. We have safely treated and supervised 90% of youth in the justice system in the community, and we have diverted nearly 67% of youth out of the justice system.

This does not account for significant numbers of young people who never touch the system thanks to early intervention, prevention, and deflection efforts delivered by probation and other partners in the community. 

We have arrived at these policies by following, and being informed by research.  

What we know today from a growing body of brain science research is that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. Teenagers, whether they are 16 or 19, have trouble with impulse control and poor decision-making skills. 

Those issues are made worse by trauma endured as small children which most of the youth served by the justice system experience far before they exhibit behavior that warrants a public safety response.  

In 2016, the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School reported that “when comparing youth who were prosecuted in the adult system to those retained in the juvenile system, the former had a 34% to 77% greater likelihood of being re-arrested for a crime. They were also more likely to be re-arrested for a more violent crime than those exiting the juvenile system.”

Such research makes clear that our work is not done. 

That is why the Chief Probation Officers of California are proposing a new law we call the Elevate Justice Act. It is the logical and research-based next step in the evolution of California’s juvenile justice system.  

This proposal is guided by mounting brain science research and would apply to people up to age 20, rather than the current cut-off at age 18. 

Young people would receive age-appropriate programming and services in the juvenile justice system, and provide them with tools for long term success in the community. 

These young adults would have the added benefit of having their records sealed, which would help eliminate a barrier to gaining employment, educational grants, and housing.  

Young people would receive individualized family-centered, strength-based treatment and rehabilitation plans. They would be taught strategies to further limit the use of detention, expand training to better address racial and ethnic disparities, and further protect public safety by addressing the risk and need factors of young people with age-appropriate services within the juvenile justice system. 

The proposal holistically and individually focuses on young people by incorporating proven comprehensive rehabilitation and restorative justice approaches that will help reduce recidivism, enhance community safety, and support youth. 

California has an opportunity to not only redefine juveniles in our justice system but to embrace transformative policies focused on providing individual and holistic services that will restore these young people to a productive and healthy future. This policy will help protect victims, better protect our communities, and give young people battling to regain a healthy life a better chance to do so.

As we know, as California goes so goes the nation. California has a historic opportunity to help the nation further spur the transformation of juvenile justice that will make a difference in millions of lives.

____

Stephanie James is president of the Chief Probation Officers of California, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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