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California's Turning Tide on Youth Prisons

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JERRY BROWN BUDGET
Getty File Photo

Seven years ago, the Ella Baker Center's Books Not Bars Campaign started calling for closing California's youth prisons. People laughed in our faces. Literally. Even reformers who agreed in private, thought we were foolish to call for shuttering the largest set of youth prisons in the country.

Monday, Governor Jerry Brown presented a plan to do just that. In the $12.5 billion in spending cuts was a proposal to close the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) youth prisons by 2014.

This is not merely a victory of activists and politicians. The real champions are the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles that would not give up on their children or our state. Families who knew that by closing youth prisons we could open real opportunities for California's youth. Families that pushed us to look at what other states had done. States such as Missouri showed there was a better way to invest in youth, families and communities, while decreasing crime at the same time. Bringing together families of incarcerated youth gave Books Not Bars the power and the resolve to push for closing this costly and abusive system.

Over the next few months, the Governor's budget will be analyzed and debated. Strong opposition to the closure of DJJ will certainly be an obstacle. However, the mere fact that Governor Brown's budget includes the closing of the DJJ prisons means that the tide has turned -- politicians are starting to realize what our families have known for years: dumping youth in prisons doesn't make us safer. And we hope this turning tide will also lead California to examine its relationship to all prisons, and break our addiction to lock 'em up policies that do little to invest in people or increase public safety.

Whether this budget cycle is the nail in the coffin for the notorious DJJ, or it happens next year or the year after that, this is a historic moment in our work and for California. In a span of just seven years, Books Not Bars has shifted the way our state looks at its youth and youth prisons.

When we first began, we were just a handful of families meeting on the weekends. Our early days were marked with unthinkable tragedies. On Martin Luther King Day in 2004, two young men hanged themselves in the youth prison cell they shared. Allen Feaster and Fonda Whitfield lost their sons that day. With us, they turned their tragedy into powerful appeals for change. "Look at his death as a new beginning," Mr. Feaster told lawmakers, as he urged them to close the abusive youth prisons. Sadly, that year at least two other young people, Roberto Lombana and Dyron Brewer, died within the walls of the DJJ dungeons.

Families held vigils across California, and traveled to Missouri to see the national juvenile justice model for themselves. Mothers and fathers wept when they saw the type of treatment their children could have had -- treatment that could actually rehabilitate and help their kids turn their lives around. They returned to California newly determined to bring the Missouri model home with them.

A huge movement forward in this work came with the Farrell vs. Cate case, championed by our allies at the Prison Law Office. Through the case, report after report documented the abuse, violence and neglect of the youth prisons. At the end of the case, the DJJ (at the time known as the California Youth Authority) signed a consent decree, agreeing to remedy serious, ongoing problems with conditions in the system. The case and its reports affirmed what we already knew -- the system was failing our youth and was overdue for major change.

In 2005, we released System Failure, a film that documents the horrors of California's youth prisons and features family activists and experts alike calling for the Missouri model to replace the youth prisons. The movement to transform the DJJ grew as the solution to our ineffective system became clearer.

Since 2004, Books Not Bars has trekked to Sacramento each year with proposals to shrink DJJ and, later, replace it with effective alternatives that would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on schools and much needed services. Our efforts mean that the youth prison population in California has shrunk by 60%, which makes the current budget proposal even more feasible.

In 2007, Assemblymember Sally Lieber introduced our proposal as a groundbreaking bill to shut down the DJJ and direct the millions spent on ineffective, abusive prisons to counties that could do the same job better and still save the state money. That year, the Governor also proposed to keep low-risk, low-need youth at the county level, rather than lock them in the DJJ and to ensure family connections could be maintained. Some called our closure bill "rather radical," but we pushed and got through one committee. That was far enough to help the Governor's more modest plan succeed. In a huge step forward for California, DJJ became forbidden for youth who committed minor offenses.

The next year, DJJ's failures, dwindling population and skyrocketing cost forced not one, but two youth prisons to close. We started seeing non-partisan reports that recommended closing DJJ altogether. We were no longer the only voices calling for this bold change. In 2009, we launched a campaign to target Stark and Preston prisons, and later that year officials announced the closure of Stark youth prison. And right before the end of 2010, plans to close Preston Youth Prison -- the oldest and most remote facility -- were announced.

And now, the next great opportunity is upon us. Governor Brown is taking a bold step towards a California that invests in its youth instead of locking them up. Books Not Bars will continue to share the stories, statistics and solutions that clearly demonstrate that the time for DJJ to close is now, and we hope a broad movement of Californians will stand with us. This current milestone, and the seven years of the Books Not Bars movement, prove that California's future is one where we no longer lock kids up to languish in cells that make rehabilitation an impossible feat, but rather where we invest in our youth and our communities so that everyone can live to their full potential. That future, a State without the dungeons of the DJJ, looks bright.