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September 22, 2021

Youth offenders must be housed locally

As part of the Governor’s “commitment to providing more treatment and rehabilitative services for youth closer to home” under SB 823, the state is closing the juvenile prison in Stockton (DJJ). This means that Santa Cruz County will soon be tasked with housing and treating our youthful offenders. Due to a lack of infrastructure, we don’t currently have anywhere to house these young people in Santa Cruz. There are good reasons for that. While many counties have built bigger juvenile facilities over the last 20 years, our county has reduced the number of youth in custody through modern approaches to delinquency, like diverting youth away from incarceration and into programming. This was the right choice. Probation offices across the country have emulated our model. But now we must pivot to accommodate the handful of youth who require secure housing while they get treatment. This will require collaboration on every level, from grassroots community support to a push for more state funding. We believe that our county is uniquely suited to heed this call given our history as juvenile justice leaders.

The county’s interim plan is to send our young people to Sonoma County for housing and treatment. Most everyone agrees that this is not the ideal plan and that it would be better to keep our youth closer to home. However, the Governor’s decision was unexpected, requiring our leaders to act quickly. The good news is, Sonoma County can serve as an interim solution while we work toward something better. As a Commission, we’d like to see our leaders at every level—community, county and state—work collaboratively toward a long-term, local solution. We understand that this will require a significant investment. At the same time, the closing of DJJ presents an opportunity for our county to create something that results in better outcomes for our youth and our community. It’s an opportunity that we cannot afford to pass up.

A group of commissioners recently visited Sonoma County to assess their facilities and programming. We determined that Sonoma County is not a good long-term option. The young people affected are our most troubled and vulnerable youth—a small group found to have committed the most serious offenses. Between 2010 and 2020, we sent 25 youth to DJJ. Few returned rehabilitated. To successfully reenter the community, these young people require comprehensive rehabilitation and reentry services, including access to education, vocational training and healthy relationships with clinicians, mentors, and family members at home. Unfortunately, Sonoma County has some of the same problems as DJJ. Sonoma County is far from home, where youth are unlikely to have regular visits with their families and develop the local support systems that they’ll need for a successful return. Additionally, the planned programming is inadequate, with minimal vocational training, and the facility has the look and feel of an adult prison. It’s hard to imagine a young person spending several years there, and then returning home prepared to thrive.

Sending our youth away and returning them home with the same, or worse, mindset they were in when they made the poor decisions that led them to a locked placement will only result in more violence and grief for our community. To break the cycle, we’ll need to invest into programs here in Santa Cruz County that provide healthy alternatives for at-risk ad system-involved youth, build self-esteem, teach marketable skills, and offer hope.

We’ve tried incarcerating our youth in an adult-like prison far from home. It hasn’t worked. And it’s at odds with what we stand for as a county, as juvenile justice leaders. We all want these kids to bring home new ways of thinking, a positive message and marketable skills. We can accomplish this by building a system that provides housing designed to nurture and uplift our youth, addresses the root causes that led to the misbehavior, and offers ongoing support here at home.

The mission of the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission is to advocate for and protect the safety and well being of dependent and delinquent youth, as well as to promote intervention and prevention services and programs in Santa Cruz County.