How One California County Is Ending Girls’ Incarceration

Santa Clara County Serves as a Model for California—And the Country
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Apr 25, 2023

In 2018, Santa Clara County, a county of nearly two million people that includes the city of San Jose, admitted girls and gender-expansive youth into short-term detention at Juvenile Hall 268 times, and into long-term placement at William F. James Ranch—commonly known as “the Ranch”—14 times.

But most girls and gender-expansive youth were not being detained because they posed any real public safety risk. Rather, they were often detained as a result of misguided attempts to “protect” them. Many had experienced abuse or homelessness and housing instability. Many faced conflicts at home, and some were involved in sex trafficking.

“Juvenile Hall is not a motel. It is a jail,” said Judge Katherine Lucero, a former juvenile court judge in Santa Clara County who now leads California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR).

And yet, youth legal system actors in Santa Clara County often treated it as the former, too readily detaining girls and gender-expansive youth under the misguided premise that it was for their own safety. But detention and incarceration are traumatic experiences that typically cause more harm.

In the last five years, Santa Clara County has taken bold, decisive action—led by Lucero and other government and community leaders. County officials have shifted their focus from improving access to gender-responsive programming in custody toward the more ambitious (yet achievable) goal of ending the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth entirely.

In 2018, Santa Clara County invited the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC), which has provided support and mentorship to system-impacted young women and gender-expansive youth in California for decades, to open an office in San Jose. The county even secured space and funding for YWFC, which would go on to create programming, including a diversion program, for girls and gender-expansive youth in Santa Clara County. That same year, Santa Clara County was one of the four sites that successfully applied to partner with Vera’s Ending Girls Incarceration initiative (EGI), which is working to end the incarceration of girls’ and gender-expansive youth by 2030.

“Our government partners were open and willing to honestly assess their system, to acknowledge places where they were falling short, and to have difficult conversations. And it didn’t stop there,” said Hannah Green, a program manager with EGI. “They were willing to make meaningful changes in response to what they heard.”

From 2019 to 2022, annual girls’ admissions to Juvenile Hall declined more than 60 percent. And over the last two years, Santa Clara County has largely maintained an average daily population of zero to two young people in the girls’ unit at Juvenile Hall and has not sent any girls or gender-expansive youth to the Ranch.

Girls’ pathways to incarceration

In 2019, there were more than 200,000 arrests and more than 39,000 admissions to detention of girls and gender-expansive youth under 18 across the country. Because of its size, California has more girls and gender-expansive youth in long-term placement than most other states. In 2021, there were over 4,700 arrests and 1,400 admissions to detention of girls and gender-expansive youth statewide.

Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls and youth who identify as LGBTQ or gender-expansive are disproportionately harmed—a dynamic that is evident nationwide. In California, for example, Latina youth make up more than 50 percent of all girls’ detention admissions, and Black youth make up 25 percent of all girls’ detention admissions despite being only eight percent of the state’s overall youth population.

In Santa Clara County, Vera partnered with researchers at New York University to conduct a case file review of girls admitted to detention in 2017. The review found that 80 percent of girls experienced homelessness or housing instability prior to their arrest. Eighty percent also had documented child welfare histories. Many had experienced sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. And they were often detained following economically driven crimes, like theft, or because of concerns that they needed “protection” from violence or abuse. But incarceration isn’t an effective solution for any of these challenges. It wasn’t making Santa Clara safer, and it wasn’t meeting girls’ needs. In fact, it was exposing them to more harm.

Across the country, girls and gender-expansive youth are incarcerated on similarly arbitrary and misguided grounds. But if communities simply stopped incarcerating youth to “protect” them, to connect them with services, or to respond to misdemeanors like disorderly conduct and status offenses like running away, it would mean the end of girls’ incarceration in most places. Instead, local officials should ensure that girls and gender-expansive youth have access to community-based gender-responsive programming—as well as safe, stable, and supportive housing—so that they aren’t criminalized and incarcerated as a direct result of poverty or actions they take to survive.

In Santa Clara County, Vera worked with government and community leaders to identify gaps in services and determine how to fill them through existing community-based programs and organizations, as well as new investments. The county’s close collaboration with YWFC—which developed new programming in San Jose—also played a critical role. Now, YWFC’s San Jose site offers internships, fellowships, and employment opportunities to youth who are impacted by the criminal legal, foster care, and welfare systems.

“Our young folks in our communities, they’ve navigated so much trauma. A punitive approach isn’t empowering,” said Desiree Victor, director at YWFC’s San Jose site. Victor said YWFC’s approach asks girls and gender-expansive youth what their goals are, beyond probation stipulations.

Another key component of Santa Clara County’s success has been its recognition that collaboration with the community is necessary to create effective solutions.

“They were willing to open up spaces and hear directly from the young people who had been through this system to inform what those changes should be,” Green said.

Local leaders, including judges and probation officials, created spaces where they heard directly from advocates and young people—people like Jocelyn Arenas, who was a fellow at YWFC and is now a community organizer in Santa Clara County.

“We may share some of the same experiences, but everybody has a different story. Bringing as many voices as you can to the table is going to help you in the decision-making process,” Arenas said. “But also—don’t just bring the youth voices to the table to share their stories and then throw their suggestions out the window.”

New investments

In 2021, Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors approved $4 million in new, gender-responsive temporary housing solutions—slated to roll out in 2024—that will prevent girls and gender-expansive youth from entering detention because of a lack of housing. These solutions include recruiting community members, who would receive specialized training and guaranteed stipends, to welcome young people into their homes while longer-term options are identified. In 2021, the Board also approved an economic support pilot that offers life coaching and a guaranteed monthly income of up to $1,000 to young people who have experienced trafficking and sexual violence. These solutions have been driven by what girls and gender-expansive youth say they need.

What Santa Clara County has achieved is monumental, but it is not alone. Vera’s Ending Girls Incarceration initiative also works in Hawai`i and New York City. In Hawai`i, annual girls’ detention admissions have dropped more than 60 percent, and in 2022, the state made headlines for having no girls in long-term placement for the first time in the state’s history. In New York City, annual girls’ detention admissions decreased 70 percent and annual girls’ long-term placement admissions dropped 90 percent between 2016 and 2020. For the last two years, the city has had no more than two girls in placement at any given time.

EGI is also expanding its work in California beyond Santa Clara County through the Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network, which it launched this April in partnership with OYCR. Vera will support four counties—Imperial, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego counties—as they work to end girls’ incarceration by implementing policies and practices that reduce arrests and detentions and championing community-centered programs that serve girls and gender-expansive youth.

Counties in California and nationwide can follow the lead of Santa Clara County—and places like Hawai`i and New York City—to reduce and, ultimately, end the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth.

“It’s really critical that it's the community that responds to support young folks, not the system,” Victor said.