Henry Hernandez served half of his two years in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility. The initial intake dorm he stayed in was overcrowded with more than 60 youth from rival gangs fighting everyday, he said. Fights of more than five guys at a time broke out almost every week. The guards would use pepper spray or gas bombs to get things under control.
“There would be so much tension,” Hernandez said.
Pictures of kids in cages at what was then called California Youth Authority facilities adorned the front pages of California newspapers in the early 2000s. Media stories in the first half of that decade charged the Youth Authority with a range of abuses, including unlicensed medical and mental health treatment, and extreme use of force and solitary confinement.
Reforms to the juvenile justice system then reduced the population of the Youth Authority, now called the Division of Juvenile Justice, by 88% over the past decade.
Today, DJJ handles less than one percent of the 225,000 youths arrested in California each year.
Almost all the youth left in DJJ, about 1,200 people, are serious violent juvenile offenders or serious sex offenders, according to DJJ reports.
Last Thursday Gov Brown suggested eliminating DJJ altogether in his proposed budget plan. If the Legislature passes the plan the responsibility for these youth would shift back to the counties.
But even if the budget doesn’t pass as proposed there is a possibility that DJJ will close, and these serious juvenile offenders will be sent to state prison with adults.