In the coming months the state of California will see much of its juvenile state prison responsibilities handed down to counties. It’s all part of a reform effort spearheaded by Governor Jerry Brown called “realignment.”
Turnstyle sat down with Sumayyah Waheed—the director of the Ella Baker Center’s Books Not Bars campaign, which encourages families to champion alternatives to the state’s youth prisons—to talk about these reforms.
Turnstyle: Do you consider this a step forward for California’s juvenile justice system?
Waheed: Yes, definitely. While we’ve been working on this campaign, it’s actually been since 2004, so it’s been eight years and we’ve seen a huge difference. The state has moved away from its state youth prisons, in keeping more youth local. Since we started, it was 4,500-5,000 youth across the state in youth prisons and now it’s 1,100—so it’s dropped down dramatically. It went from eight youth prison to three today, so we’ve seen five youth prisons close, and it’s just been going in that direction for a while now. And so we see great promise in cutting off the rest of the beast and releasing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being wasted on the current system, for better approaches and better treatment for youth that will actually make our communities safer.
Turnstyle: What are the benefits and the challenges to realignment?
Waheed: The immediate benefit is spending money on something that works better at the local level. Some of the challenges in doing this are in planning for the best kinds of programs to take youth. [Another challenge is] insuring that counties can actually do better with the money because we have 58 counties in California and some of them do better than others.
One of the biggest concerns is around the possibility that some counties will just be lazy and decide that instead of developing programs for those youth who would have gone to DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice], they will just send them to the adult prison system, which unfortunately, is possible under our laws. At Books not Bars, we’ve brought proposals to actually de-incentivize that, so that counties would have to pay if they wanted to send more youth to the adult system.
Turnstyle: How does the juvenile justice system affect families and young people?
Waheed: It’s really stressful for the families. The thing I hear most often from families again and again is that you’re locked up right there with their child. For a mom she can’t really separate it, knowing that her child is locked up isn’t something she can just put aside. For families there are the everyday challenges of planning around visitation, and the hours of travel, and the money, and staying in a hotel over night depending on how far it is. And then there are the challenges of youth who are facing trouble inside in, trying to advocate for them to be safe and then at the same time trying to get something better for all youth.
Turnstyle: And do you feel that keeping youth at the local level will actually help with the issues that families deal with, like the separation and anxiety, and the day-to-day problems they face?
Waheed: It definitely helps. Right now you have some youth from L.A. who are in Stockton—so being in their county is going to make a huge difference. At the local level there are more avenues for having a voice. At the state level there’s Sacramento and most parents can’t make it out there on a regular basis. By allowing youth to be closer to their families it allows the families to be engaged in insuring that the youth can actually come out and do better once they’re out.
Turnstyle: What counties are you looking to as leaders, and what counties are you most worried about and why?
Waheed: Alameda County has been really optimistic. The chief probation officer David Muhammad comes from Oakland and has had experience with the system and really believes in his ability to keep the youth local and do a better job than the state has. And that’s just one example. In Santa Clara County we’ve promoted as reforming their juvenile system.
And then there are the counties that are just kind of what you described, very invested and addicted to the punitive approaches and that’s Riverside and Orange County, the more conservative counties where the emotions of the “tough on crime” and fear mongering distract people from the actual results which is that prisons don’t actually make us safer, whether they’re for youth or adults.
Turnstyle: In your ideal world, what is the best case scenario of what juvenile justice reform would look like here in California?
Waheed: Going back to Chief Muhammad: I think he’s the one who said that our jobs are to put ourselves out of business. Ideally there wouldn’t be a need for a juvenile justice system because we’d have real systems of support—so that youth who have had troubles have more productive ways to work them out and have their needs met.