color photograph of a young girl in an orange jumpsuit with black text that reads "probation" across the shoulder blades. she sits next to a woman who is typing on a computer. they are visible through a partially opened doorway
A probation officer helps a new arrival at Camp Kenyon Scudder fill out intake paperwork after arriving to serve her time at the girls detention center. (Photo by Bethany Mollenkof/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

June 30 marked the end of California’s state-run youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Prompted by the passage of Senate Bill 823, the move was several years in the making thanks to the work of advocates who challenged horrible conditions behind the walls of those institutions for decades. But not everyone is celebrating. 

Jahzara Halliday was one of several organizers who shut down a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting in late July in response to officials’ lack of action toward years of dysfunction and harm within the county’s youth legal system. The final straw was the fatal overdose of Bryan Diaz in May and the reopening of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, California, which had been closed due to unsuitable and abusive conditions, to house the youth that had to be moved from two other LA County Juvenile halls that were closed due to reports of abuse. 

“There’s currently 247 vacant Probation Department division positions that they’re still paying for, and these people don’t even go to work. All that money can be diverted into mental health, housing,” Halliday said. 

For Halliday, the issue is personal. She’s been navigating the red tape of reentry resources on behalf of her sibling, who was refused mental health treatment while in jail and is looking for assistance with housing and health care. And without that help, she’s worried that he’ll end up incarcerated again despite all their efforts. 

“The system is not a place to be. Jail is not a place to be,” Halliday said.

Like organizers across the state, people in Los Angeles are urging local decision-makers to invest in community alternatives. The closure of DJJ was a landmark decision that appears to position California as a trailblazer in criminal legal reform. But without sufficient alternatives that address the root causes of incarceration or why youth initially come into contact with the legal system, many advocates fear that whatever follows will replicate the same harms. 

Halliday has also been through the youth legal system herself, and one of the root causes was the school system. She was bullied a lot, which led to fighting in self-defense, ultimately leading to her expulsion from the Los Angeles Unified School District. By this point, she’d already had interactions with the legal system and was on probation. To avoid going to jail, she went to Chuco’s Justice Center, a community center and alternative high school from the Youth Justice Coalition. There, she was finally met with a community that took an interest in her and responded to her needs. 

“I was a kid who was getting bullied. I wanted clothes and things I was supposed to have that my mother could not provide. For years … I needed bare necessities, and it has [had] a huge impact on me and my life,” Halliday said. “What [Youth Justice Coalition] did for me, they didn’t let [the justice system] take advantage of me. They didn’t let me get caught up in the system.”

California’s youth prison system stretches back more than 100 years to reform schools established by the state legislature in the late 1800s. Those who ran the schools, modeled directly after adult penitentiaries, believed the best way to correct behavior was through routine and extreme punishment. This belief has remained at the foundation of California’s youth legal system through its many iterations, producing generations of young people who were traumatized inside facilities and received little support when returning home. 

“These institutions never had a capacity to rehabilitate, and this was acknowledged by the leaders of the state system going back to the 1960s when they recognized that it failed,” Daniel Macalliar of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice told KQED in a recent interview. “It was never a place of rehabilitation. It was a penitentiary, kids went there to get punished, and everyone looked the other way.”

California’s youth prisons have taken various shapes over the last century. In 1941, the state moved from a reform school model to the California Youth Authority (CYA), an entity to oversee all youth facilities. And when the “superpredator” myth took over front pages and evening news slots in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the California youth prison population ballooned in 1996 to about 10,000 young people. 

In 2003, a lawsuit against the CYA by the Prison Law Office over the conditions and abuse in the state’s youth facilities resulted in the CYA being placed under a consent decree and 12 years of court monitoring. Two years later, the CYA was dissolved, and the DJJ was created in its place as a subset of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Over the following decade, the number of incarcerated young people continued to fall. While the DJJ was released from court-ordered monitoring in 2016, the facilities continued to fail youth. Reports of unsanitary living conditions, physical and sexual abuse, and even fight clubs run by staff plagued the state for years, and in 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 823, legislation that would close California’s state-run youth prison system. 

Now, those facilities have closed, and young people are being moved under the supervision of county probation departments. But counties across the state didn’t do a sufficient job of investing in alternatives to incarceration ahead of the June 30 closure. 

Because the number of incarcerated young people has dropped significantly since its peak in the 1990s, many facilities have closed to cut budgets. In 2021, 0.4% of the state’s youth population ages 10-17 was arrested, compared to 12.5% in 1970. And for most counties, that’s meant closing smaller facilities like camps or ranches in favor of keeping the juvenile halls open. Only 22 of California’s 58 counties have smaller facilities available to house young people coming out of DJJ custody. Otherwise, county probation departments are housing youth inside county juvenile halls, which were only ever meant to be temporary spaces with limited outdoor space or programming. 

But the same issues that concerned advocates about state-run youth facilities are present in juvenile halls. 

“Getting rid of the state system is just the starting point,” Macallair said. “The next phase is reforming the county systems and instituting services programs and systems at the county level that are going to be more effective and not only won’t abuse kids and make them worse, but actually will put them on a path to a better life.”

According to the “Beyond Repair: Envisioning a Humane Future After 132 Years of Brutality in California’s Youth Prisons” report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released in June 2023, community leaders from 17 counties across the state have reported significant drug use that has resulted in overdoses, little to no youth programming, an overreliance on punitive practices like isolation, and massive understaffing issues. 

The budgets for county probation departments have grown with the closure of DJJ. Probation departments receive $225,000 per year for each young person who would have been housed under DJJ, a strong incentive to keep youth housed in juvenile halls. These are funds that advocates like Halliday say could be redirected to implement community-based alternatives like those put forth in the Youth Justice Reimagined report: creating a 24-hour crisis response, staffing programs with people who have been impacted by the justice system, and creating alternatives to school discipline.  

“As long as we lack the resources, this is always going to be a problem,” Halliday said, referring to the cycle of youth incarceration. “And as long as they never get down to the root cause … and figure out what’s going on, they’re not gonna get anywhere.”

Montse Reyes is a writer and editor based in Oakland and raised in California's Central Valley. She enjoys writing about the intersection of race, gender and class, often as they relate to culture at large.