OPINION: California’s juvenile justice system needs a complete overhaul

Drawing of a judge holding a gavel
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

California Senate Bill 889, proposed by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would raise the state’s juvenile detention age from 18 to 20. However, we should go further by raising the age to 25 and ensuring no one under that age is tried as an adult.

The juvenile justice system is far more rehabilitative than the adult justice system. Prisoners in juvie are provided some form of education, conditions in juvie facilities are less harsh than adult jails and sentencing is often more lenient. Statistics show this unfortunate reality: for minors tried in adult criminal courts, recidivism (rearrest and reconviction) rates are estimated to be nearly 30 percent higher than for those tried as juveniles, and minors are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility.

Sadly, California’s judicial code doesn’t allow enough people to garner the benefits of being tried as a juvenile. Juvenile justice must revolve around core principles in line with the psychological understandings we have regarding adolescent behavior. Professor Emily Buss at the University of Chicago Law School — also a Pitzer College parent — has extensively described the risk-prone and malleable nature of youth. Because brains don’t fully develop until the mid-20s, adolescent behaviors are not as emotionally stable. Buss also demonstrates that socialization in harsh environments directly affects juveniles’ futures.

With this understanding, California must overhaul its code to rehabilitate individuals that can’t scientifically be considered fully culpable for their actions and whose futures rest on the socialization that the justice system affords them. The issues with California’s juvenile justice system, however, reach further than age limits: The entire system is broken.

By 2023, California’s inhumane state-run youth prisons will finally be shut down under Senate Bill 823. Unsettling reports have indicated that standard regulation and oversight cannot improve these prisons where single-digit educational proficiency, sexual assault, physical abuse and suicide were the norms. Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration deemed these problems systemically built into these prisons and irreversible.

But while Newsom applauds this bill, proposed alternatives to these jails are band-aid fixes to a system that needs a complete overhaul. California’s juvenile justice system will continue to devastate children’s livelihoods unless massive changes are made to focus juvenile justice on rehabilitation and not punishment.

With state-run youth prisons shutting down, SB 823 wants counties to designate detention facilities to replace the jails, hopefully creating the “least restrictive appropriate environment” for minors. However, existing county detention facilities are also rife with problems.

In Los Angeles County, for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the same problems of poor educational fulfillment and excessive force found in state-run prisons were also common in Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. In Camp Kilpatrick, a detention center meant to embrace a culture of care, a probation commissioner unsurprisingly found that staff severely deprived special education youth of educational opportunities and overly prescribed psychotropic medications.

California must move away from detention centers altogether and instead increase funding for multidisciplinary community-based prevention programs.

The underlying principles of California’s justice system need reexamination. Individualistic attitudes toward responsibility have ultimately turned state criminal justice systems into ones fueled by retaliatory hatred. Retributive systems that seek to punish through arbitrary degrees of harm don’t help anyone: not society, not criminals and not their victims. This has led to 74.2 percent of California juvenile criminals being rearrested within only three years of release. That is a remarkable failure.

The only way we should improve the juvenile justice system is through implementing sweeping legislative changes that radically change our perspectives on what the role of criminal justice systems is.

Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He is a stressed freshman looking to work in public policy.

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