After a nineteen-year fight to upend California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, advocates and families are encouraged by Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision to shut down the state’s three remaining youth prisons.
The May revision of the Governor’s budget released yesterday proposes to stop intake of new youth starting January 1, 2021 and begin closing all three youth prisons and the fire camp.
Since 2001, the Ella Baker Center has highlighted the abuses of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to young people and their communities through the Books Not Bars campaign—which successfully fought to close five of the eight California youth prisons, resulting in an 85% reduction in the youth prison population. Now, the last three state youth prisons will be closed.
Our allies—the Prison Law Office (which sued the California Youth Authority over conditions inside the youth prisons), the Youth Justice Coalition (a membership-based organization of young people who had been through the criminal legal system), the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Youth Law Center (advocacy organizations), among others—were instrumental in the success of the campaign.
“They laughed at us years ago when we told them we’d shut down all the California youth prisons,” said Laura Talkington-Denies, a volunteer with Families for Books Not Bars. She joined the campaign when her 15-year old son was serving time inside the notorious N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility. “It didn’t happen overnight, but the state is finally moving toward justice. Now they need to provide the tools that will actually help these kids.”
“This is long overdue. Like a lot of parents with incarcerated children, we often felt hopeless, like we were doing time with our children,” said Lourdes Duarte, Parent Organizer with Books Not Bars. “During the six years I was with Books Not Bars we brought together over five hundred parents and gave each other hope, a purpose. The fight isn’t over, but it feels good to see that other parents won’t have their children locked in these dungeons in the future.”
Despite an uphill battle during a time when California legislators were still embracing tough-on-crime sentiment, the family members and advocates of the Books Not Bars campaign gained support by grassroots organizing and creating the first-ever statewide network of families with imprisoned children.
“As an organizer with the Books Not Bars campaign, I saw first-hand the pain and suffering families went through as their children suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the state,” said Ella Baker Center Executive Director Zach Norris. “I’m very encouraged by the Governor’s action to divest from youth incarceration. The next step is to invest resources in creating more opportunities for young people, including community services, mental health support, job training, and restorative justice practices.”
Advocates see this, along with the Newsom administration’s ongoing commitment to close two adult prisons in the next three years, as crucial steps towards reimagining what California’s criminal legal system can look like.
Advocates applaud the administration’s plans to close two of the state’s 33 prisons by 2023. “We are excited to see the administration’s renewed commitment to close prisons, and we would like to see California make plans to go further,” said Emily Harris, Policy Director with the Ella Baker Center.
A recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that over 13% of California’s Prison Population or 16,826 people are over the age of 55, putting them at greater risk of complications from COVID-19. Harris continues, “The pandemic has only reinforced the need for further reductions to our prison population, the virus threatens to turn prison sentences into death sentences. We must do everything we can to bring people home to their families.”
With the corrections budget creeping to $13.4 billion, advocates argue that reducing prison costs through responsible decarceration could prevent further cuts to California’s vital social safety net.