November 29 2017

I went to the halls at a young age … I came out with a lot more anger at the system due to mistreatment of the youth.

I wish there was people that their only job was to help me transfer from the juvenile facility to the outside world… because I was lost.

The only way to get counseling was to say you were going to kill yourself.

Staff shackled youth on the way to treatment; creating more damage and making youth feel like 
there was “no treatment.” 

These are real statements made by youth who know California’s juvenile justice system first-hand. Thankfully, a subcommittee of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) has taken bold steps to remedy some of the disgraces described above and protect future youth from similar harms.

Recently, the Executive Steering Committee (ESC) appointed by the BSCC finalized their recommendations for revisions to the “Minimum Standards for Juvenile Facilities”—regulations that apply to the roughly 124 county-run youth lock-ups throughout California. The regulations cover all aspects of a youth’s life in detention, from undergarments and personal visits to extracurricular programming and schooling. The BSCC has the opportunity to revise these regulations every two to four years, and for the first time, it seems the Board has used this opportunity to listen to and incorporate voices that come from a place of experience and knowledge of what works and what hurts—voices of our youth, their families and communities.

Earlier this year, the ESC accepted the results of a statewide survey of youth and their families and convened eight topic-specific workgroups of nine–14 people, many of whom were incarcerated in California during their adolescence. While they should have been represented in even greater numbers, their influence on the discussions and ultimate recommendations adopted by the ESC was vast. The regulations as a whole now adopt positive behavioral approaches that respect and acknowledge trauma, cultures and languages of youth; guidance regarding transgender and intersex youth; increased avenues for family and community engagement; and improved educational opportunities. These improvements would not have been possible without the open-minded debate and compromise of all the workgroup members, including many chief probation officers.

Amongst the many positive revisions, there are a few standouts resulting from focused advocacy by workgroup members, committee representatives and the public. If the regulations are adopted by the BSCC, local facilities would have to provide to each youth a personal set of new underwear (past regulations mandated “substantially stain-free” underwear); allow youth visits with their own children (in addition to their parents/guardians), and; make individualized determinations of safety risks before using shackles or chemical spray on youth.

Despite the many advances, there were still areas where the ESC did not go far enough. For example, though it is well documented that chemical spray is a violent act that can trigger or add to traumas already experienced by youth, California will remain out-of-line with the 45 other states that prohibit staff from carrying chemical spray on their person. Concerned family members or supportive adults still lack a formalized channel to share their concerns directly to the BSCC about treatment of detained youth. And furniture, fixtures, and other structures creating suicide hazards can still be “grandfathered in” so that facilities face no mandate to reduce immediately suicide risks for our most vulnerable youth.

One of the most controversial decisions by the ESC was its refusal to mandate research-supported smaller staffing ratios that would reduce the probability of violence within the facility (including sexual violence) and provide safe environments where youth could build healthy relationships with staff and each other. Professional and federal standards, along with hundreds of state and local jurisdictions, adopt staffing ratios of one adult to eight youth during the day and 1:16 at night. In the face of pressure from youth, communities, advocates and medical and mental health professionals on one side, and law enforcement unions and representatives on the other, the ESC deferred their power to align revisions with modern practices. Instead, they chose to present four possible options to the BSCC regarding the current mandated ratios of 1:10 and 1:30.

Next February, the BSCC will have the authority to adopt the many constructive revision recommendations put forth by its subcommittee. By doing so, and mandating smaller staffing ratios, the BSCC will move one step closer to fulfilling its mandate to provide for the positive social emotional development of our children.

A full summary of the statewide survey of youth and families can be found here. It was created by The California Endowment, Children’s Defense Fund-CA, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and the Youth Justice Coalition.

Click here to read a recent op-ed on this topic by Ms. Nong that appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

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