Transforming the Culture of Juvenile Justice in the Wake of Youth Prison Closures


Jessica Heldman


In 2019, the Governor of California vowed to fundamentally transform the state’s juvenile justice system. The legislature endorsed this commitment by enacting SB 823, which begins a phased closure of state-run youth prisons in 2021. California is not the first state—nor will it be the last—to close facilities in light of decreased juvenile crime and greater awareness of the harms associated with incarceration. Although a welcomed development, the closure of youth prisons should not be viewed as the culmination of reform; rather, it is only the beginning. To achieve far more impactful change, state and local jurisdictions must confront the long-standing punitive culture within juvenile justice systems that persists both inside and outside the walls of youth prisons. This article argues that the science of adolescent development embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court and the substantial evidence regarding what works to prevent juvenile reoffending provides states with the tools to transform the culture of juvenile justice. A proposed legislative agenda includes updating statutory purpose clauses and enacting statewide policies rooted in the lessons of history and the findings of contemporary research. With the novel concerns raised by a global pandemic and a renewed focus on racial injustice, this is an opportune time for California and other states to revisit and rebuild their systems to ensure they promote the well-being and safety of all children and their communities.


adolescent development; California; disproportionality; incarceration; juvenile justice; probation; race; reform; youth prison

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