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California's Juvenile Justice System Undergoes Major Overhaul

NOEL KING, HOST:

California is overhauling its juvenile justice system. The idea is to focus not on punishment but on a care-first model. Now, this is happening all across the country. It's a broad rethink of what juvenile rehabilitation should look like. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED has the story.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Elijah Ramirez was 16 years old when he arrived at one of California's three remaining state-run juvenile lockups. This was just before Christmas in 2014. He was there to begin a sentence for attempted murder, an incident that left him temporarily paralyzed.

ELIJAH RAMIREZ: I came in there with trauma already as it is. This place didn't help me with that trauma. It intensified it.

LAGOS: Ramirez, who had been shot four times, expected to be able to continue his medical treatment and physical therapy but says he ended up locked in a battle with staff over where he should be housed and what treatment they would provide. Not long after his release, Ramirez said...

RAMIREZ: You know, if you were to say, has DJJ rehabilitated me, last year, I would tell you no. If you tell me today, I'ma (ph) say yes. But it rehabilitated me in a way of it showed me how not to be, so I don't think that's a healthy approach.

LAGOS: Ramirez's story is familiar to advocates like Renee Menart, a policy analyst at the pro-reform group Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. She and her colleagues have spent years detailing the failures of the Department of Juvenile Justice, a system generally reserved for young people convicted of very serious crimes like assault and murder. They charge that instead of fulfilling a mission of rehabilitating young people, it leaves them worse-off by isolating youth from their families and exposing them to violence.

RENEE MENART: DJJ has gone through cycles of abuse and superficial reforms for decades.

LAGOS: Calls for change have become louder over the past two decades as youth crime in California plummeted by 80%. That drop in population means that on average, California is now spending a staggering $316,000 a year on each young person at DJJ. Of course, all this begs the questions, where will the youth go now that the state lockups are closing? And will it actually be better?

KIRK HAYNES: It's better to try to keep young people closer to home. You have better outcomes. There's no doubt about that.

LAGOS: Kirk Haynes is probation chief in Fresno County in California's Central Valley. Fresno County usually has 35 to 40 young people in the state system at a time. Probation chiefs like Haynes oversee juvenile justice at the county level and are taking the lead on these changes. Haynes says probation chiefs have ambitious goals.

HAYNES: It's not always just trying to figure out how much - how long you can lock them up in a juvenile institution or at a state facility. It's not about that. It's always going to be about what we can do to try to interface and interact with that youth and his family so that we don't have this revolving door.

LAGOS: Haynes says he's already talking to neighboring counties about the possibility of regional partnerships and is working with the University of Cincinnati to develop new programs and approaches - things like education and behavioral health support. Katy Miller is juvenile probation chief in San Francisco, which, unlike Fresno County, usually has just a couple of kids in the state system at any given time.

KATY MILLER: So we use it very rarely, which is good.

LAGOS: But now the county will have to find a way to help those kids locally, and the alternative isn't clear. That's because San Francisco is going a step further than any other county and is also shuttering the county-run juvenile hall by the end of next year. Here's Miller again.

MILLER: The question becomes not now what don't we do, but what do we do - right? What do we build in its place as a system for our young people that meets their needs and promotes community safety?

LAGOS: To build that reimagined system, one that actually lives up to the mission of juvenile justice - to turn kids' lives around - Miller says that local leaders will need to get input from young people like Elijah Ramirez who have been there before.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF WMD'S "MOONPOOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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