Transforming California’s Juvenile Justice System
by Brian Richart

Youth from the Coastal Valley Academy in San Luis Obispo County enjoy a day at the beach participating in pro-social activities

How California ultimately decides to transform juvenile justice will have long-term impacts on families and communities for generations – this transformation will influence whether young adults sink deeper into the criminal justice system or rehabilitate into independent individuals.

As we reimagine the system and seek improvements, let’s rely on science to inform how we move forward.

Brain development research over the past two decades shows that the “youth” brain is not fully developed until age 25. Prior to that, “emerging adults” are prone to be impulsive, more sensitive to immediate rewards, less future-oriented, more volatile in emotionally charged settings, and highly susceptible to peer and other outside influences. All these factors have proven to be more pronounced for youth who experience trauma, which is between 75-93% of all youth in the juvenile justice system.

These facts are why earlier this year the Chief Probation Officers of California proposed the Elevate Justice Act (EJA) in the Legislature to align with the science and promote opportunities for success for emerging adults.

The EJA, if enacted, would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 19 years, producing real, effective changes for high-needs youth currently processed through the adult justice system.

Our proposal provides individualized treatment, rehabilitation plans, limited probation terms, and conditions based on the specific risk and protective factors for 18 and 19-year-olds.

This is in addition to limiting detention by requiring the use of a risk-based intake assessment and total exposure time in juvenile court custody. All of these changes are derived from scientific evidence of what works.

Specifically, a 2016 Harvard Kennedy School report found that “when comparing youth who were prosecuted in the adult system to those retained in the juvenile system, the former had a 34% to 77% greater likelihood of being re-arrested for a crime. They were also more likely to be re-arrested for a more violent crime than those exiting the juvenile system.”

I know firsthand how devastating it is to watch a youth begin to thrive due to rehabilitation, only to be required to walk them over to an adult prison when they turn 18. It’s time to embrace further reforms that will make a difference and provide emerging adults a better opportunity to rehabilitate.

While some are focused on realigning the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to county probation, the focus should be on enacting science-backed reforms, like the EJA, that would benefit youth, young adults, and the community.

Time and time again Probation has proven its ability to step up to the plate and deliver positive change for clients – a transition of DJJ will not be any different.

Sufficiently supporting Probation with this transition will set California up for success in managing incoming high-needs youth. However, if the focus is just this transition, then we are missing the chance to adopt effective reforms that will benefit more than just our youth but emerging adults. EJA would leverage the success of local juvenile systems where we have reduced incarceration, reduced recidivism, reduced trauma, and improved the lives of thousands of our highest need youth in the community.

However, changing the age of jurisdiction cannot be done in a silo. It must be done as part of a comprehensive evidence-based approach.

Rather than sending a youth to adult prison on their 18th birthday, our approach will allow them extended services within the juvenile justice system where we focus solely on rehabilitation, which always involves accountability as a factor. The proposal would also keep records sealed for 18- and 19-year-olds, eliminating wrongful stigmas that still exist for individuals with previous criminal records and offer them a clean slate while entering in to adult lives.

While EJA was initially sidelined due to the crisis of the global pandemic and the historic state budget deficits, we propose policymakers look at it differently as we transform the juvenile justice system. More investment to keep emerging adults within the juvenile system will not only save taxpayer dollars in the long run and keep communities safer, but will provide a lifeline that these teenagers need for a second chance all while achieving a healthier life.

Probation knows the strain that comes with the rehabilitation process of high-needs youth, which is why we stay updated with the latest science to ensure that their supervision ans support is done properly over time.

In the fourteen years I have served in the field, a major constant has been California Probation’s commitment to evolving with the science of rehabilitating high-needs youth.

We have confidence in the data that informs us how to care for young people coming from challenging environments – and this allows us to identify what works and focus on improving areas that lack results. In doing this, Probation has decreased juvenile detention rates by 60% and diverted away 67% of youth from the criminal justice system.

Let’s embrace science-backed policies that limit disruption, provide accountability, encourage support, and are proven to make a difference in youth and emerging adults’ lives. Now is the time.

You can read a version of this opinion piece at Cal Matters