AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
West Coast Rethinks Juvenile Justice

Three Pacific States take a hard look at youth justice

From raising the age at which children may be tried in adult court to re-examining the conditions under which they can be held in custody, jurisdictions across the country have considered ways to address the unique needs of children and young adults in the criminal justice system.[]See for example Dana Goldstein, “Who’s a Kid?” The Marshall Project, October 27, 2016, https://perma.cc/2JVS-GNHT; Clarice Silber, “New Prison Unit Opens to Help Young Female Inmates,” Connecticut Mirror, July 9, 2018, https://perma.cc/YNA8-ZLV8; Robert Hayes, “Young Offender Unit Opens at Middlesex Jail & House of Correction,” Wilmington Apple, February 16, 2018, https://perma.cc/5XQW-JEFL; and Vera Institute of Justice, “Restoring Promise,” https://perma.cc/E69F-8E2Y. But there is still progress to be made. As Monique Morris explored in her 2019 documentary Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, children and young adults of color—especially Black children—as well as LGBTQ youth are disproportionately impacted by justice system contact.[]Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (Women in the Room Productions, 2019). See also Dr. Monique W. Morris, “PUSHOUT Documentary,” https://perma.cc/YG7C-EYVM; and Samantha Ehrmann, Nina Hyland, and Charles Puzzanchera, Girls in the Juvenile Justice System (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2019), https://perma.cc/LS8Q-Q55M. In 2019, states on the Pacific Coast took actions to address these concerns and reform their juvenile justice systems.

California made changes to fundamentally alter the philosophical underpinnings of the state’s juvenile justice system from a focus on punishment to a focus on support and assistance, with the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, vowing at the beginning of 2019 to “end juvenile imprisonment . . . as we know it.”[]Josh Rovner, “Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview,” The Sentencing Project, July 23, 2019, https://perma.cc/JRG4-E8MM; and Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “Governor Newsom Announces His Intention to End Juvenile Imprisonment in California as We Know It,” press release (Sacramento, CA: Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, January 22, 2019), https://perma.cc/4Q78-98UF. Newsom announced he was moving the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice out of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—which has a history of harsh treatment of children in its custody—and into the California Health and Human Services Agency in order to focus on rehabilitation over punitive detention.[]Charlotte West, “As Newsom Rethinks Juvenile Justice, California Reconsiders Prison for Kids,” CalMatters, June 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/QNG6-CFGK. For a history of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, see Maureen Washburn and Renee Menart, Unmet Promises: Continued Violence & Neglect in California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (San Francisco, CA: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/6L6C-6BZE.

The new Department of Youth and Community Restoration, to be established in July 2020, will include a training institute for corrections officers and an internal oversight division.[]West, “As Newsom Rethinks Juvenile Justice,” 2019; and Jazmine Ulloa, “California Probation Chiefs Brace for Changes to the Juvenile Justice System,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-probation-juvenile-justice-20190421-story.html. Advocates mostly hailed the decision, noting that “when the systems are connected to agencies that have an emphasis on health, healing and a connection to resources that can assist in that . . . they are able to do a better job.”[]Sammy Caiola, “Is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Juvenile Justice Reform Substantial or Symbolic? Experts Say It’s a Wait-And-See,” Capital Public Radio, January 24, 2019, https://perma.cc/83LV-ELRB. However, a few have cautioned that the move needs to be more than “simply a change in the letterhead.”[]Ibid The reorganization will be bolstered by the January 2020 implementation of a 2018 law that sets the minimum age for prosecution even in juvenile court—except in cases of murder and rape—at 12 years old.[]California SB 439 (2018), https://perma.cc/A3BR-A45C.

Newsom signed a number of other bills into law that are anticipated to decrease youth involvement in the criminal justice system, including limiting school suspensions, providing avenues for cases to be returned to juvenile court, expanding the upper age limit for juvenile detention to age 24, and increasing access to educational opportunities for incarcerated youth.[]For a roundup of the full set of juvenile justice bills signed, see Jeremy Loudenback, “California Governor Newsom Vetoes Effort to Shrink State Juvenile Justice Agency,” Chronicle of Social Change, October 14, 2019, https://perma.cc/X6UP-RCZ6. But he vetoed a bill that would have increased the fees that counties must pay the state to send youth to state detention.[]California SB 284 (2019), https://perma.cc/6Z5K-AXXW. Proponents had hoped that stiffer costs for incarceration would encourage counties to keep justice-involved youth out of state detention and near their homes and communities, improving their chances for success.[]Loudenback, “California Governor Newsom Vetoes Effort,” 2019. In vetoing the bill, the governor indicated that he agreed with the principles behind it, but thought it would undermine the proposed Department of Youth and Community Restoration.[]Ibid.

Advocates hope the overhaul will help the state in its efforts to decarcerate the long-troubled youth justice system, which is still feeling the effects of Proposition 21, a “tough-on-crime” initiative pushed through in 2000 largely thanks to efforts from the California District Attorneys Association.[]Caiola, “Substantial or Symbolic?” 2019; and Evan Sernoffsky and Joaquin Palomino, “Locked Up, Left Behind,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 2019, https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/California-once-sent-thousands-of-juveniles-to-14480958.php. From 2003 to 2018, more than 11,500 youth aged 14 to 17 were tried in adult court under the auspices of Proposition 21, with the effects being felt particularly by Black and Latinx communities.[]Sernoffsky and Palomino, “Locked Up,” 2019. Over the past decade, Black and Latinx juveniles made up 86 percent of those tried in adult court statewide—and, in Los Angeles County, that number was 96 percent. Beginning in 2013, however, California took a hard look at its system and passed a series of reforms banning life without parole sentences for youth, rolling back Proposition 21’s provisions allowing prosecutors to file youth cases directly in adult court, and barring youth under 16 from being tried in adult court entirely. Proposition 21 was passed largely in response to a perceived “crime wave” in the mid-1990s that had already ended by the time the legislation hit the books.[]Ibid. Between 1980 and 2016, arrests in the state declined by 84 percent for juveniles while decreasing much more slowly or even increasing for other age groups.[]Jill Tucker and Joaquin Palomino, “Vanishing Violence,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2019, https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2019/vanishing-violence/. This has left youth detention centers largely empty.[]Ibid. A 2018 investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle found that 39 of 43 facilities were less than half full, and some were nearly vacant—such as Nevada County, which incarcerated five youth in a building designed for 60.

Some cities in California have been independently reforming their youth justice systems. In August in Los Angeles, the Board of Supervisors voted to convene a Youth Justice Work Group to determine which department in the county is best placed to assist justice-involved youth currently overseen by the probation department—or whether an entirely new agency should be established for this purpose.[]Jeremy Loudenback, “L.A. County Will Explore Possibility of Separating Youth from Probation,” Chronicle of Social Change, August 14, 2019, https://perma.cc/DBH9-6SWU. And in San Francisco, both the public defender and the district attorney supported a measure passed in June to close the city’s juvenile hall, which was 65 percent empty in June.[]Sarah Ruiz-Grossman, “San Francisco Will Close Its Juvenile Hall by the End of 2021,” Huffington Post, June 4, 2019, https://perma.cc/V7NN-2V59. In lauding the decision to decarcerate, advocates noted that while the city’s population is only 5 percent Black, 60 percent of the children held in juvenile hall are Black.[]Ibid. For population statistics, see kidsdata, “Child Population, by Race/Ethnicity: San Francisco County, 2018,” database (Palo Alto, CA: Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health), https://perma.cc/Y82Y-4NWD; and Allen Nance and Jose Luis Perla, City and County of San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department Monthly Report for January 2019 (San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, 2019), 13, https://perma.cc/6GRA-X7Q3.

Other places on the West Coast made juvenile justice reforms in 2019. King County (Seattle), Washington, continued its drive to reduce youth detention to zero.[]King County, Road Map to Zero Youth Detention (Seattle, WA: King County Department of Health, 2018), https://perma.cc/Q5B7-YTK8. Also see King County, Washington, “King County Zero Youth Detention: Taking a Public Health Approach,” September 24, 2019, https://perma.cc/3S33-L6LT. There has already been success: a 25 percent drop between 2017 and 2019 in the number of youth held on any given day, and a 24 percent drop in total admissions of youth to detention.[]King County, “Zero Youth Detention Dashboard,” database (Seattle, WA: King County Department of Health), https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/zero-youth-detention/dashboard.aspx. In addition, the county had 35 percent fewer referrals to the juvenile legal system for low-level or misdemeanor offenses over the same time period.[]Ibid. The county’s strategy calls for a series of steps to reduce youth justice involvement, with the first being to address institutional racism and bias in the system: in 2018, youth of color were 6.6 times as likely to be detained as white youth.[]King County, Road Map, 2018, 3; and King County, “Zero Youth Detention Dashboard.” The remaining objectives are to prevent justice system contact, divert youth who are already in the system to more appropriate resources, support justice-involved youth to improve family and community relationships, and align the multiple systems with which youth are in contact to improve their odds of accessing the right resource at the right time.[]King County, “Zero Youth Detention Dashboard.” As part of the initiative, the county is replacing its current youth detention center with a facility that it describes as “more developmentally appropriate”—but which opponents say is still a jail.[]Ibid.; and Justin Carder (jseattle), “Protestors Against Children and Family Justice Center Block 4th Ave.,” Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, March 2, 2018, https://perma.cc/JMW9-LP5Q.

And in Oregon, the state corrected its course on youth justice, retracting an initiative approved by voters more than two decades ago in the midst of the “tough on crime” era that mandated adult charges for anyone 15 or older who was accused of certain felonies.[]Oregon Ballot Measure 11 (1994). See Marion County, Oregon, “Measure 11,” https://perma.cc/F5CS-J7KY. See also Noelle Crombie, “Oregon Senate Approves Sweeping Juvenile Justice Reforms,” Oregonian, April 16, 2019, https://perma.cc/R793-SMT5; and Daniel Nichanian, “Oregon Overhauls Its Youth Justice System,” The Appeal, July 25, 2019, https://perma.cc/7KJU-3QUC. In the years since, Oregon has had the second-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation.[]“Corrections Rankings,” U.S. News & World Report, accessed December 5, 2019, https://perma.cc/XFP4-FF9L. A 2018 report showed that the measure was three times as likely to impact Black youth—who were indicted on these charges at a rate five times higher than their percentage of the population—and that Latinx and Native American youth were also disproportionately represented in the system.[]Roberta Phillip-Robbins and Ben Scissors, Youth and Measure 11 in Oregon (Salem, OR: Oregon Council on Civil Rights, 2018), 28, https://perma.cc/WRG2-M3PK. In July, Governor Kate Brown signed into law a bipartisan youth justice reform bill that, among other things, eliminates the practice of automatically prosecuting 15- to 17-year-olds as adults if they have been accused of serious crimes such as rape, murder, robbery, and assault.[]Oregon SB 1008 (2019), https://perma.cc/2FGK-WUB2; and Casey Leins, “Oregon Reforms Its Juvenile Justice System,” U.S. News & World Report, July 23, 2019, https://perma.cc/L5A7-YB5T. The law, which went into effect January 1, 2020, creates a presumption that these youth will be tried in juvenile court and requires prosecutors to request a hearing before their cases can be heard in adult court.[]Oregon SB 1008 (2019).

The new law, which was backed by leaders from the Oregon Department of Corrections—but opposed by the Oregon District Attorneys Association—also eliminates life without parole sentences for juveniles.[]Oregon SB 1008 (2019); Leins, “Oregon Reforms Its Juvenile,” 2019; Nichanian, “Oregon Overhauls Its Youth Justice System,” 2019; and Crombie, “Oregon Senate Approves Sweeping Juvenile Justice Reforms,” 2019. Anyone convicted of a crime committed when they were younger than 18 will get a chance to seek parole after 15 years, and juveniles will also be given the opportunity for a second look hearing halfway through their sentences to determine whether they can be released from prison under community supervision.[]Oregon SB 1008 (2019). The law also adds a level of judicial review before transferring young people to adult prisons.[]Ibid.

Oregon’s action continues a national trend of reducing the number of young people under 18 who are handled as adults in the criminal legal system. After years of work by the national “Raise the Age” movement to set 18 as the age of criminal responsibility in all 50 states, nearly every state handles youth under 18 in juvenile court, although most such laws have conditions under which children may still be tried as adults.[]Campaign for Youth Justice, “2019 Legislative Reforms After Raise the Age,” press release (Washington, DC: Campaign for Youth Justice, May 20, 2019), https://perma.cc/AS9W-3QGA; and Anne Teigen, “Juvenile Age of Jurisdiction and Transfer to Adult Court Laws,” National Conference of State Legislatures, January 11, 2019, https://perma.cc/6835-3GQQ. Michigan joined these states in 2019, voting to raise the age of who is considered an adult in the criminal legal system from 17 to 18. Anyone under 18 will be treated as a minor in juvenile court and receive the rehabilitation services that are offered in the state’s juvenile justice system; prosecutors, however, may still charge juveniles as adults for certain violent offenses.[]Michigan’s Raise the Age legislation was incorporated into an 18-bill youth justice package that includes Senate Bills 84, 90, 93, 97, 99, 100, 101, and 102, as well as House Bills 4133, 4134, 4135, 4136, 4140, 4142, 4143, 4145, 4443, and 4452, all from the 2019 legislative session. The package ultimately redefines “who is considered to be a juvenile or an adult as they make their way through the criminal justice process, including how an individual is to be detained, tried, and transported. The new law will ensure that anyone under 18 years old will be treated as a minor in juvenile court and receive the rehabilitation services that are offered in the juvenile justice system to reduce recidivism, such as those practices outlined in the Youth Rehabilitation Services Act.” Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, “Governor Whitmer Signs Bipartisan Bills to Raise the Age for Juvenile Offenders,” press release (Lansing, MI: Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, October 31, 2019), https://perma.cc/GNN3-JABM. The Michigan law leaves only three states—Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin—that have not acted to raise the age to 18.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, advocates are hopeful that the transfer of young people to the adult system is just one of many issues that a new task force will review in Maryland.[]See for example Advocates for Children and Youth, Testimony before the Judicial Proceedings Committee in Support with Amendments of House Bill 606 – Juvenile Justice Reform Council, March 26, 2019, https://perma.cc/6KAA-F63A; and Emily Mooney and Ashley DeVaughn, “Opinion: Locking Young People Up Won’t Result in Less Crime,” Baltimore Sun, December 24, 2019, https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-1225-youth-crime-20191224-nwx7hsp47bbi3juqnyjlby5aoa-story.html In 2019, Governor Larry Hogan signed Senate Bill 856/House Bill 606 establishing the Juvenile Justice Reform Council (JJRC).[]Maryland SB 856 (2019), https://perma.cc/K3PZ-YAYG; Maryland HB 606 (2019), https://perma.cc/24ME-WV4G; and Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, “Juvenile Justice Reform Council,” https://perma.cc/3TNP-CVM4. The JJRC will “[use] a data-driven approach to develop a statewide framework of policies to invest in strategies to increase public safety and reduce [youth recidivism], research best practices for the treatment of juveniles who are subject to the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and identify and make recommendations to limit or otherwise mitigate risk factors that contribute to juvenile contact with the criminal and juvenile justice systems.”[]Maryland SB 856 (2019).