Earlier this month, I interviewed Anthony, a young man who had spent over a year in the California DJJ between 2004 and 2006 and then went on to receive his degree from University of California, Berkeley. (Read Part 1 of the interview HERE and part 2 HERE) His disheartening experiences in the DJJ brought up a multitude of questions about their policies and whether or not the system has changed since his time there.  I called up Jennifer Kim a senior policy analyst with the Ella Baker Center and asked her some questions about the current state of affairs in DJJ facilities. You will be disappointed to learn that much of what Anthony experienced and suffered from is still happening. My interview with Ms. Kim after the jump…

A cell at Ventura Correctional in Camarillo, California, part of the DJJ. Image by Richard Ross for Juvenile-in-Justice.
A cell at Ventura Correctional in Camarillo, California, part of the DJJ. Image by Richard Ross for Juvenile-in-Justice.

Juvenile in Justice (JinJ): So, to start things off: In our conversation, Anthony related to me a discipline tactic employed during his time at the DJJ that basically involved Corrections Officers being able to add time to a child’s sentence. Can you tell me more about this?  

Jennifer Kim (J): Legislation was passed earlier this year to curtail that practice. Prior to that, the DJJ had a disciplinary sanction system, loosely referred to as “time-adds.” If a young person got in trouble, any corrections officer/guard, or even teacher, could discipline by essentially adding time to a sentence, anywhere from six months to a year. If a youth challenged a time-add, it would be then move up to next level of supervision, for example the superintendent, would just look at report and approve it. There was no judicial review.

[superquote]”The time-add system contributed to why young people in CA had the longest average sentences.” [/superquote]

In 2009, we introduced a bill to eliminate time-adds. Our belief being that positive reinforcement works better than negative sanctions. It was ultimately defeated. This year we shared our language with legislative budget staff. We let them know that this was still a harmful practice, and that on average time-adds added about a year to a young person’s sentence, which was a conservative estimate. The time-add system contributed to why young people in CA had the longest average sentences, it was not only bad for kids, but it was costing the state a lot of money. Ultimately, it passed!

(JinJ): What can you tell me about education in the DJJ/CYA? How is it regulated? 

J: I’m sure there has been some improvement since Anthony’s time there. But let’s say there was a fight in the classroom, instead of just isolating the incident to the young people involved, they would cancel class for all. Sometimes for two weeks. There are two big issues with this: 1) institutions are not able to fulfill the 220 minutes of education required each day and 2) these interruptions in the educational process lead to late graduation, if at all. That’s not to say they haven’t made any progress. Back in the day, a teacher would educate while a young person sat in cage. They don’t do that anymore. If you talk to the DJJ, they will basically tell you how well they are doing, how much they’ve improved, how many people are graduating, etc. But looking at how bad they were, they really haven’t come nearly far enough. The DJJ system costs $200,000 per youth per year. K-12 is $8000 per youth per year. The current recidivism rate is 81%. If you’re spending 200k a year, there should be better results. The system is failing. Maybe graduation rates have improved, but if you look, the average age at DJJ is 19– ideally these kids should be enrolled in college courses.

[superquote]”The DJJ system costs $200,000 per youth per year.” [/superquote]

(JinJ): Are college courses offered? 

J: Minimally. The system is not set up to offer these opportunities to young people. Once they are released at 24-25, they are already so behind. Which makes it incredibly difficult to find gainful employment, to become educated, to not recidivate.


Who inspects the DJJ? How regularly? Are there public reports available?  

J: In 2004 the Farrel v. Cate lawsuit resulted in the DJJ (then the CYA) agreeing to remedy serious problems regarding conditions in their facilities. Early on, independent experts went in and regularly monitored what was going on. You can see read more at the Prison Law Office website (http://www.prisonlaw.com/cases.php#juvi), a firm based in Berkeley. I don’t know how in depth the monitoring is, but they do release quarterly reports. Sometimes we may go in, we may talk to youth. We find out about most of the abuses when we talk to families. Young people are more transparent with their families.

Families protest against the DJJ. Image courtesy of the Ella Baker Center.
Families protest against the DJJ. Image courtesy of the Ella Baker Center.

(JinJ): Is isolation a method of punishment used frequently by the DJJ? What types of regulations are there on this? 

J: Legislation we were trying to pass this year regarding the use of confinement didn’t make it out of first committee. This is a practice the corrections community uses to address the fact that they don’t have any alternative ways to deal with the issues that come up. There are young people in temporary detention or something called the behavior treatment program. It is also referred to as 23 and 1. That was a practice happening prior to a lawsuit that was supposed to change it to 21 and 3. This is not happening. We had one incident where a kid got released for only 1 hour over a 10-day span. In solitary confinement these kids are denied access to regular programming and their education is interrupted.

So, the bottom line is the facilities are supposed to be giving 3 hours out, which is still unacceptable, are we’re not sure they are even meeting those standards.

(JinJ): According to Anthony, the actual quality/quantity of real psychiatric or behavioral therapy is severely lacking– is this any issue with funding… or what is this about?

J: Corrections officers don’t have the training or background to provide the services they provide. I am unsure how many of them are trained to be counselors to at risk youth or deal with trauma issues, but they are the ones that are providing the so-called counseling. It’s an issue of inadequately trained staff providing complicated treatment.

(JinJ): Why aren’t licensed specialists working with these kids? 

[superquote]”Guards are not required to have a certain level of education in order to provide counseling services.”[/superquote]

J: Good question. I have the same question. What’s missing is that a lot of young people aren’t supported on a stable basis by staff equipped to deal with the issues that they come in with. Guards are not required to have a certain level of education in order to provide counseling services. They have some training but it’s not adequate. This is especially bad for young women coming in, for whom the system doesn’t deliver adequate gender based programming.

(JinJ): Can you discuss the unions? Can you speak to Anthony’s experience that the corrections unions were so powerful as to be able to rehire employees who had been fired for offenses such as bringing in contraband or having sexual relations with prisoners? 

J: Well, for example, there was one young person in Chad (Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility) who was constantly being harassed by one guard. It got physical. His mom visited and saw the cuts and bruises on him. We met with the young person and spoke to him. Ultimately, as a consequence, the guard was then moved to another unit. So we haven’t seen a lot of discipline happening. There are also lots of privacy laws that protect the employees. They aren’t able to tell us exactly what happens after a complaint is filed.

(JinJ): How can a youth in custody at DJJ reach out if they feel they are being abused or treated unjustly? For example– is it easy to do this without the COs or staff creating obstacles or ignoring it all together? 

J: There is an internal grievance procedure. Back in the day, they used to have it set up where youths would work as grievance clerks. Another youth would create a written complaint and submit it to the grievance clerk who would give it to whoever was in charge of handling it. Having spoken to families about this particular procedure, it seems that the grievances were often mishandled or not addressed adequately. An Ombudsman is assigned but that’s also not effective; they are still under the umbrella of corrections, not an independent entity. You can also write a complaint to the office of the inspector general. Frequently, you write a complaint, send it, you may get a response, but rarely do you see any action. The families that have reached out to us about specific requests, we’ve been able to put some pressure on it, on the superintendent or whoever is capable of affecting change. But for families not connected to an advocacy organization, it’s very difficult to help them. Further, lots of these young people are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal.

[superquote]”A person in food service would sneak in food and treats in exchange for sexual favors– that’s fairly common.”[/superquote]  

Some of the young people have told me crazy stories, some I can’t even believe, One, a person in the food service would sneak in food and treats in exchange for sexual favors– based on stories that’s actually fairly common. Also, female guards strike up inappropriate relations with the youth with relative frequency. One young person, who was out for several years told me that one female prison guard, after his release, sent him a nude picture of him and basically propositioned him.


Families circle up in protest of the DJJ. Image courtesy of the Ella Baker Center.
Families circle up in protest of the DJJ. Image courtesy of the Ella Baker Center.
(JinJ): Juvenile prisons are closing– where are kids going?

J: Legislation passed in 2007 mandated that kids couldn’t be sent to DJJ for non-serious offenses. Now only 707b offenses, serious offenses, can result in a kid being sent to DJJ. There has also been a decline in crime. We are also seeing some shift in kids being sentenced to the adult prisons. It’s not a dramatic increase. In positive news, there is a sense from some of the more progressive counties that these kids are coming back worse and thinking, “maybe there is something we can do locally that would help young our people, and help our communities…” So you have a lot of counties that have chosen to look at alternatives that keep young people in county programs. If you look at which counties are using DJJ you see that of 58 counties total in California, about a dozen take up 80% of capacity in DJJ.

These counties tend to be more conservative, more inclined towards “lock ‘em up” policies. Counties that aren’t investing in community alternatives, aren’t thinking about innovative evidence-based ways to change their approach.

(JinJ): How does all of this relate to the work you do with Books Not Bars?

J: Books Not Bars is basically the only statewide network of families of young people locked up in DJJ. Our goal is to close the DJJ in favor of local alternatives that keep young people closer to their families. We believe in programs based on principles of treatment and therapy, programs that provide opportunities for young people. We are a hybrid of organization and policy strategy. We go to prisons and talk to family members, we bring them together to have discussions that inform our policy work– what kinds of bills we want to introduce.

We are currently doing some transitioning, including moving onto doing some adult corrections work. Looking at mass incarceration as a national problem, moving beyond our state work and looking at why we are detaining all these people and all these people of color. We are still committed to doing this work in California. We think that the DJJ is going to close. Now we are focusing on talking about what alternatives are going to be in place. We are posing the question, what future do we want?


For more information on The Ella Baker Center and Books Not Bars, visit their website HERE. Many thanks to Jennifer Kim for her time and knowledge.

3 thoughts on “A conversation about the CA Department of Juvenile Justice…

  1. CA needs to address the juvenile justice system now 2013! Things are not changing and children are being neglected and abused by this so called justice or rather unjust system created. Police/Correction officers are not trained in child psychology. They are doing more harm than good. I used to have respect for the police and law enforcement, but not any more. Why do we teach kids not to bully yet it is OK for the kids to be bullied and aggressively treated by these so called professionals! Time for change as we forget that kids are kids and that the children are our future. We are creating hardened criminals resentment and animosity. Young people must be treated age appropriately and their crimes!!. When a child faces court they do not understand the system and often agree to guilty when they should not. They are threatened with a a felony if they don’t agree to probation and this can be just for small crimes. We will pay the price for juvenile in justice we already are. Prevention not detention education not incarceration. Police are not Dr’s counselors/teachers nor educators. Supposedly there too protect and serve. Who are they protecting and who are they serving???? Even now complaints against police fall on dead ears as those on the top hold the power. A fish rots from the head down…….

  2. The enforcement is ugly Tobin. The fact that not even counselors need advanced education, is destined to lead to problems. It would be like having high school slackers design our nuclear power plants, such a sensitive and dangerous issues to be designed and executed by the average citizen.

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