The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) population in 2016 declined to fewer than 700 youth in three remaining institutions. About 150 of those are under adult jurisdiction, housed in DJJ until they can be transferred to prison at age 18. DJJ, with a top jurisdictional age of 23, remains an age-limited alternative to state prison for juvenile court commitments.
In 2011 and 2012, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to completely shut down the state Division of Juvenile Justice. This proposal failed due to opposition from counties claiming a threat to public safety and a lack of capacity to serve high risk/high needs youth. Meanwhile, court-ordered changes in programming (from the Farrell litigation) have, according to many observers, improved conditions and treatment made available in the surviving DJJ institutions.
California law and policy affecting juvenile offenders continues to undergo transformation. In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 57, eliminating the practice of “direct file” by prosecutors on juvenile offenders in adult criminal courts. One likely result of this initiative is an increase in future commitments to DJJ, because courts making “transfer” decisions after Prop 57 are keeping cases in the juvenile system (and eligible for DJJ) that would formerly have been direct-filed in adult court.
Early in 2018, Governor Brown’s administration proposed key changes affecting DJJ. The first would restore commitment time at DJJ to age 25, rather than age 23 (as adopted in 2012).. The idea behind extended DJJ commitment time is to encourage juvenile courts in transfer hearings to keep youth in the juvenile system, as an alternative to transferring the case to adult criminal court in order to obtain longer confinement (prison) time. The Governor’s other proposal is to make DJJ available to a limited number of young adults (18-21) serving time in state prison, under the terms of a pilot project yet to be fleshed out.
The reform agenda for the future should include these elements:
- Improve monitoring of programs and outcomes of offenders now realigned to counties
- Promote the development of effective re-entry programs, including outcome monitoring, for youth realigned from state to local custody and care
- Develop local and community-based programs and facilities able to accept commitments and to provide adequate programming for youth in lieu of sending them to the Division of Juvenile Justice.
- Develop broader local program capacity for serious offenders now housed in DJJ, with adequate funding to support the additional capacity.
- Work with policymakers, courts, attorneys and corrections agencies to assess the full impact of Proposition 57 and to control and reduce the number of juveniles going to adult court and state prison.