August 9 2017

As Californians Learn More about the State’s $1 Billion Youth Lockup System, Demand for Reform Increases

Los Angeles — Californians strongly support closing youth prisons and investing instead in community-led prevention and rehabilitation for young people, according to a survey of 1,042 California residents commissioned by The California Endowment and conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3).

The survey shows widespread opposition to locking up young people and strong support for alternatives to incarceration that focus on health, youth and family services, and rehabilitation. Enthusiasm for reform grows stronger as respondents learn basic facts about the high cost of youth lock-ups, the reasons young people are incarcerated, and racial disparities in the system.

“When first asked about youth prisons, 61% of respondents say they support the goal of total closure, and after hearing just a few facts about the system, that number immediately jumps to 68%. Such dramatic movement is unusual and indicates that opposition to youth prisons runs very deep among Californians,” said researcher Dave Metz, Principal and President at FM3.

California has one of the nation’s largest youth prison systems, with more than 125 state and county lockups that cost taxpayers more than $1 billion a year. About 6,000 young people, nearly all under the age of 18, are locked up on any given day, three-fourths for non-violent offenses such as theft, vandalism, or running away from home.  African-Americans and Latinos make up 80% of incarcerated youth, and are locked up more often than white youth who commit the same offenses.

“Californians understand what the research clearly shows: incarcerating young people is a failed strategy that must be replaced with what works,” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, M.D., President and CEO of The California Endowment. “It’s time to shift our thinking and our tax dollars from punishment to prevention.”

According to the survey of 1,042 Californians, 84% of whom are registered voters, public support for closing youth prisons is spread widely across California. Every major region supports the goal of total closure, including 61% of residents in Los Angeles, 68% in the Bay Area, and 66% in the Central Valley/Central Coast. Researchers found virtually no gender gap on the question, with 62% of men and 60% of women supporting youth prison closures. Majorities of self-identified Latinos (61%), African Americans (62%), Asian/Pacific Islanders (56%), and Whites (62%) also support the idea, as do Democrats (67%), Independents (60%), and Republicans (50%). All of these numbers increased between five and ten percentage points after respondents learned a few basic facts about the size and scope of California’s youth prison system.

The poll showed that huge majorities of Californians support prevention-oriented programs and alternatives to incarceration that hold young people accountable for their conduct while keeping them in their communities.

  • 89% of Californians support restorative justice approaches, which require young people who have committed a crime to take responsibility for their actions and to try to “make it right” with the victim;
  • 89% support requiring additional training for government agencies that connect with youth, so employees better understand the impact of trauma on young lives and developing brains; and
  • 88% support additional investment in youth development programs like afterschool, sports, arts, and mental health services that keep young people healthy and out of trouble.

A chart pack reporting results from the survey is attached and is available here.

According to the California Department of Justice, the number of youth arrests has declined 75 percent since 1980 and currently sits at a three-decade low. However, the cost of incarceration has soared, because the youth prison population has declined dramatically, but the number of facilities has not fallen at the same rate. As a result, two-thirds of California counties currently operate half-empty facilities, according to data reported by the California Board of State and Community Corrections. It costs $270,000 per year to house a young person in a youth prison run by the state, and $247,000 per person in Los Angeles County.

Experts agree the current system fails to rehabilitate young people and help them re-enter their communities successfully. Independent research shows that nearly three-quarters of young people incarcerated in state-run youth prisons are rearrested within three years.  Community-based services yield better outcomes for youth, at a fraction of the cost—as little as $75 per day, compared to more than $400 per day for lock-up facilities, evaluations show.

Youth who have been through the system also echo support for alternative approaches. “At 19 years old, I went through a one year residential program as an alternative to doing 8 years in an adult prison. The alternative provided more rehabilitation than prison could have ever offered me, and I got to see my loved ones sooner. Now, I work towards creating alternatives for youth that are culturally rooted, trauma informed, and community centered,” said Daniel Mendoza, who currently works with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a nonprofit organization based in Oakland.

# # #

About the Survey

The survey of 1,042 Californians was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates in June 2017. The survey was conducted online, with quotas set to ensure a representative demographically-balanced sample. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.04%.

About The California Endowment

The California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation, was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. The Endowment challenges the conventional wisdom that medical settings and individual choices are solely responsible for people’s health. The Endowment believes that health happens in neighborhoods, schools, and with prevention. Headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, The Endowment has regional offices in Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego, with program staff working throughout the state. For more information, visit


Comments are closed.