California’s Historic Juvenile Justice Evolution
Led by Chief Probation Officers, California has seen a historic shift in how we serve youth referred to our justice system.


Authored by Chief Stephanie James and Chief Allen Nance

California should be proud of the evolution and success in our juvenile justice over the last decade. Led by Chief Probation Officers, along with the state and community-based agencies, California has seen a historic shift in how we serve youth referred to our justice system. California has reduced usage of our local detention facilities by 60% and successfully serve 90% of youth in the juvenile justice system within our communities. 

The decrease in juvenile crime has contributed to these declines but it has also largely been driven by the fact that we seek to avoid detaining youth for non-violent offenses. Of the 71,000 juveniles referred to probation in 2018, only about 7,000 were placed in detention facilities.

Through the adoption of validated assessments of risk and needs, combined with careful detention screening, probation reserves detention for youth with the most significant risk and needs. There has been a complete culture shift in California’s juvenile justice system and it has evolved to become more innovative and responsive. Probation is committed to working with youth outside of detention and provides the needed services and programs in community settings. 

Had we not adapted our practices, our facilities would be nearly full.  But we know that is not what is best for the wellbeing of youth or the safety of our communities. That is why probation has fought to change the culture of the system to make detention a last resort.

Many local facilities were built when California thought juvenile crime would skyrocket. That didn’t happen and we now have historic lows in juvenile crime.  We strongly believe the decrease in crime is in part due to the investments made in intervention and prevention services by probation. Previous to the prevention and diversion work by probation, the only option was arrest.

However, some facilities are old, outdated, and designed for maximum capacity instead of maximum benefit. Most were not designed with the therapeutic and treatment focus that drives probation and its approach today. Adding the level of programming we now provide within older facilities is less than ideal, and expensive.  But that hasn’t stopped us from appropriately serving youth. 

Most youth we serve in detention have experienced significant trauma prior to coming into contact with probation and many have inflicted trauma upon others. That is why probation ensures the programs and services we deliver to youth are evidenced-based and trauma-informed. We believe youth deserve it. Their families benefit from it. Their victims justify it. And the restoration of our communities depends on it.

It is tempting to look at juvenile facilities solely through a fiscal lens and we recognize the importance of fiscal responsibility. Caring for youth who have experienced trauma and ensuring that care is trauma informed, is expensive. Providing supervision, medical care, dental care, mental health, education and evidence-based programming, is expensive.

We should never stop investing in and improving our juvenile justice system to better serve youth and our communities. That is why probation has fought for investment in our local systems, including a budget request to repurpose facilities with a trauma-informed design that ensures more therapeutic and residential-like spaces to better address the needs of youth we now serve.

We encourage you to reach out to your local policymakers, state elected officials and Governor Newsom to let them know you want juvenile facilities that better meet the current needs of youth.We cannot afford drastic, unproven and risky pursuits of change. We are moving in the right direction, and should focus on continuing that positive progress. If Governor Newsom truly wants to end juvenile incarceration as we know it, adapting our current facilities is where California must start.

Chief Probation Officers believe we can always do better and we continue to evolve and innovate. We must address our aging facilities to ensure they reflect their intended purpose.Only then can stakeholders have an informed discussion on what is the best use of potential surplus property and how it can be best used to meet the needs of our communities. We welcome the attention to this issue and hope it results in moving California to the next phase of our juvenile justice system’s evolution.

You can find a condensed version of this piece at the San Francisco Chronicle website here

Chief Stephanie James is the Chief Probation Officer in San Joaquin County and President of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC).  Chief Allen Nance is the Chief Probation Officer of San Francisco County Juvenile and the Chair of the Juvenile Services Committee of CPOC. CPOC is an association of the 58 counties that works to prevent crime and delinquency, reduce recidivism, restore victims and promote healthy families and communities.