Revising the Minimum Standards for Juvenile Facilities

March 10, 2017

By Dominique D. Nong

In a recent survey, youth shared their experiences of what it was like on any given day inside some of the roughly 124 juvenile facilities run by our local California county probation departments. Some criticism was harsh like having to live in quarters with the pervasive smell of urine and given sheets with soil stains and bedbugs; but others expressed a need for mentors and increased time with their families. These youth feel trapped, helpless and hopeless about their living conditions, as though they have no voice. Their parents feel the same way. But on today (Thursday, March 9), things could change.  

This year, state officials – specifically the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) – will review and begin revising the Minimum Standards for Juvenile Facilities that apply to all juvenile halls, camps and ranches in the state’s 58 counties. These standards govern nearly every aspect of a youth’s experience while incarcerated, including what food they receive and how much, allowable forms of punishment, and who is allowed to visit and how often. Not unlike most bureaucratic processes, community members are all too often ignored by the BSCC during its deliberations. But the BSCC has a grand opportunity here to do things differently: to listen to youth and families who have been involved in the juvenile justice system and incorporate their ideas and suggestions into the standards. 

The BSCC has delegated its duties of creating and implementing the revisions process to an Executive Steering Committee (ESC) that will meet for the first time today in Sacramento. The ESC is supposed to be comprised of “subject matter experts” who have the expertise to determine what bare minimum standards facilities need to meet in order to provide rehabilitative care for youth. I don’t dispute the importance of having representatives from probation, mental health, education, and legal systems on the ESC. But who else should be viewed as experts on the subject matter of what youth need to help them cope with trauma, educational obstacles, substance abuse and family dynamics? How about youth and their families? Youth and their families are habitually ignored as experts and as key stakeholders in policy decisions.  

The BSCC has made great strides this year in incorporating more family and community input. For example, this year the ESC includes a “Family and Community Engagement expert” and a youth member. But having one youth member isn’t enough. While it may be too late to add more youth members to the ESC, there is still opportunity to bring in more subject matter experts into this year’s revision process. On March 9, the ESC likely will delegate most of its power to smaller topic-specific workgroups who will decide on specific language changes to make to the existing minimum standards. The ESC should make sure to populate these workgroups with as many experts as possible—experts like youth, families, advocates, and community-based organizations and service providers—most of whom are typically excluded from critical BSCC decisions. 

Starting with this meeting, the BSCC should listen to youth and their families who have so much to say and can provide the often suppressed voice from behind the walls. Earlier this year, nonprofit organizations including the Youth Justice Coalition, the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and the Children’s Defense Fund—California coordinated with The California Endowment to collect the stories and experiences of nearly 100 previously incarcerated youth and family members. Feedback from the survey highlighted the need for change across the board, from medical care to programming to education services:  

  • "It was gladiator school. Not rehabilitation." 
  • "Powerful mind and mood altering medications ... were overused as a response to misbehaviors or the traumas related to forced separation."  
  • “… given clothes and bedding that were sometimes soiled or had bed bugs, and fungus-ridden community shower slippers.” 
  • "I felt really scared and hopeless and was suicidal a lot of the time I was in there." 
  • "... For some families that face financial and social challenges, having access of visiting their loved one would go a long way to healing some of those traumas caused by forced separation." 
  • "Sat and Sunday were the worse days cause if you don't got a visit you stay in your cell for 4 to 5 hours looking at the wall doing nothing." 

These were just some of the thoughts recently collected from youth and families. Any of these stories could and should inform the process for revising standards at our juvenile facilities. But while including recommendations of youth and their families into revised minimum standards would be one important step in protecting the dignity of our youth and facilitating their rehabilitation, it’s only just a step. Because our ultimate goal shouldn’t be to make sure our youth are respected while locked behind bars; it should be to stop locking them up in the first place.