California’s juvenile justice system seeks to end the incarceration of girls and young women Trendynewsbro

Photo: Santa Clara Probation Department

Santa Clara County has maintained near-zero rates of incarceration for girls and young women for several years. Soon, four new counties will follow suit.

Four California counties will soon be offering girls and young women in youth jails more community-based alternatives to being detained.

The initiative follows a pilot in Santa Clara County, established in 2018, which found that most incarcerated youth in girls’ units were in jails for lack of somewhere safe to go. Even when probation officials recommended their release, the girls stayed in county jails because of a lack of appropriate alternatives, such as safe temporary housing in a foster home or financial support to avoid returning to an abusive relationship.

“Ultimately, there was no place to have them be other than juvenile hall,” said Katherine Lucero, referring to her time as a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge prior to joining the new state agency overseeing the state’s juvenile justice system. “That was hard for me to digest because I always thought we were only putting youth in detention facilities for public safety reasons.”

The pilot resulted in a partnership between local courts, the county Probation Department, researchers and community organizations to ensure those girls would be released and any others with low-level offenses kept from being locked up.

Within the program’s first two years, the detention of girls declined 58% countywide. They also averaged no more than one girl per month for a full year. This changed only after youth adjudicated for violent offenses, who typically were sent to state youth facilities, began staying at the county juvenile hall given that state facilities are closing.

This type of partnership is what the new state agency overseeing the juvenile justice system in California, the Office of Youth and Community Restoration, and the research nonprofit they have collaborated with, the Vera Institute of Justice, are looking to replicate by hosting a competitive application process after which four new counties will be chosen to mirror the initiative in Santa Clara County. There is no set time frame for statewide expansion, but that is the goal, according to Lucero.

“Systems are really set up not to be disrupted. … If the people at the top show an interest and make it important, and you stick with it, and then eventually the systems catch up,” said Nicholas Birchard, Santa Clara County’s chief probation officer. Birchard worked closely with Lucero to bring the initiative to the county years ago and has been a part of ensuring its implementation within the Probation department.

Nationally, the rate of detention has consistently declined in recent decades. In 2019, there were 41,000 girls and young women in detention — down by over 55% from 92,100 in 2005.

In California, the low number of detained girls is part of what sparked the interest in eliminating them altogether. In 2021, the most recent year for which this data is available, there were 1,400 girls and young women detained across the state for low-level offenses. They can be as young as 12 and up to 21.

Further research by the Vera Institute found ongoing statewide trends: The majority of girls’ arrests, adjudications and detentions in 2020 were for misdemeanor or status offense charges, such as chronic disobedience, truancy or violating curfew.

“That really tracks with what we know nationally, which is that girls and gender-expansive youth are often entering detention or being confined not because of public safety concerns, but because of concerns for their individual safety, or in an effort to connect them to treatment or services and ensure compliance or connection to those services,” said Hannah Green, a Vera Institute program associate leading research for the initiative in California. “And we know that that’s really out of step with best practice and is not what the juvenile justice system is intended to be doing.”

What Santa Clara County has achieved is part of the national trend, according to Green. New York City, for example, did not incarcerate any girls in 2021, and there were no more than two youth in girls’ units for most of 2022.

Last year, Hawaii announced the girls’ units in their juvenile system were empty. Instead, they developed community-based alternatives, which included a campus with a homeless shelter and a vocational program for youth ages 15 to 24.

Vermont provides a warning of what could occur without such alternatives: With no juvenile facilities in the state, a 15-year-old girl was placed in an adult women’s prison in 2020.

Due to the high number of girls who remain incarcerated because they lack permanent, safe housing, securing that has become the Santa Clara County Probation Department’s starting point in ensuring each girl’s release — or preventing them from entering detention at all. After all, a reduction in detention numbers will be futile if the youth remain unsupported once they are released back into the community, said Green.

Then, probation officials move on to address other factors in that girl’s life, such as access to education.

Joy Hernandez is one of the people who receive notice from the Probation Department when a girl needs educational support. Hernandez, a senior program manager with the National Center for Youth Law, works as a liaison between the students and their school, while also coaching and encouraging the students to remain in school.

Her job includes making sure all students are immediately enrolled in their local school, have secured any necessary tutoring, have created a high school graduation plan, and receive help applying for financial aid if they are attending college.

What’s unique about education liaisons like Hernandez in Santa Clara County is that any young person who has come into contact with the juvenile justice system can be referred to work with her.

Typically, students go through their court procedure and are incarcerated before receiving this type of service. But in this county, even youth who have not yet attended their initial court date can be referred to a liaison like Hernandez.

“For some young people it takes a pretty long time to go through the whole court process, and then by that time the disconnection from education just becomes compounded — they’ve been waiting a year or more to access services,” Hernandez said.

Additional Santa Clara County research in 2017 also found that the majority of girls in detention had been transferred, expelled or suspended from their school prior to their arrest or citation, with 80% having a history of multiple referrals to the child welfare system indicating potential child abuse or neglect, and 80% experiencing bouts of homelessness before entering the juvenile justice system.

This is the level of information that the four additional counties chosen for the initiative can expect to help gather. They will be announced by the end of March. Each will receive up to $125,000 in funding with the potential for up to $250,000 in additional funding after the first year.

The new counties will also receive research and programming support from the Vera Institute of Justice, a national advocacy and research organization that seeks to end mass incarceration, to analyze local juvenile justice data in support of this initiative.

While each county’s process for reducing the number of girls they detain will be dependent on their existing infrastructure, the research and results from Santa Clara County show what might be possible.

“We’ll be able to leverage all of the knowledge that we’ve built there to help inform what’s the data that’s most important to collect. How do we make sure it’s being shared out? What does meaningful collaboration look like with the community and with directly impacted young people?” said Green, who will also be leading program management for the new counties. “What are some of the solutions that we’ve seen that have been most impactful? And then how might that need to be adjusted for the local context in these new local counties who will hopefully be excited to apply and participate and go on this journey with us.”

Part of the success will lie in each county’s willingness to change a deeply rooted system, said Birchard.

“In an effort to change systems, you sometimes have to look at yourself and your system and be willing and open to change,” said Birchard. “Through that process, positive outcomes are certainly going to happen.”

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