OYCR is Leading California’s County-Based Positive Youth Justice Transformation

by Judge Katherine Lucero (Ret.), Director, CalHHS Office of Youth and Community Restoration

Oct 16, 2023 | News

OYCR is Leading California’s County-Based Positive Youth Justice Transformation

Following decades of on-the-ground advocacy work, research, and policy change, California passed Senate Bill 823 in 2020 — committing to the transformation of our youth justice system from one that focuses on punishment to one that prioritizes health, healing, and accountability. That legislation established the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) to guide the transition as counties geared up for youth to return to their communities and to be committed to county facilities rather than state run facilities. After two years of preparation, on June 30, 2023, California closed its state-run youth prisons — a move that Governor Gavin Newsom referred to as “the beginning of the end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it.”

Before my time as Director of OYCR, I spent over two decades as a Superior Court Judge in Santa Clara County — specializing in court settings involving youth and families in crisis. I know firsthand that youth who are court-involved need accountability and support, not punishment. When youth stay connected to their communities, have access to education and job training, and when counties have the knowledge and resources to provide the care that youth need, our youth and our communities are better for it. Youth accountability for harm done does not get lost in the positive youth justice model. Restorative justice that includes developmentally appropriate interventions while allowing second chances does strike the balance of accountability and compassion needed for youth offenders.


Transitioning Youth Back to Their Communities

Research shows that when youth who are court-involved stay close to home and can remain connected to their families, they are more prepared to transition back into their communities and have lower recidivism rates. For decades, communities have advocated for a youth justice system that prioritizes the health and well-being of our children. And the US Supreme Court has acknowledged that youth are different than adults and have a diminished culpability and a heightened capacity for change. This is why California decided to close its state youth facilities and return the responsibility of care for youth who are court-involved to their local jurisdictions.

OYCR promotes the Stepping Home Model, developed by researchers at UCLA, to guide the process of transitioning youth from secure youth treatment facilities (SYTFs) back to their communities. While SYTFs provide maximum security and supervision, less-restrictive programs gradually increase engagement in the community while decreasing supervision. These programs include camps and ranches, group living, and community living (with their families or in college dormitories) with county supervision.

At the less-restrictive Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, youth are offered paid experiences to develop employable skills and work habits through community environmental projects like wildfire and flood prevention, while receiving education, individualized rehabilitation, and re-entry support. Working to keep communities safe from natural disasters expands youths’ personal growth and creates a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.


Technical Assistance and Local Grants

Over the past year and a half, OYCR has supported California counties with technical assistance and best practices for youth development, as well as grants to help counties execute their plans, develop innovative less- restrictive programs, and improve data collection. OYCR reviewed and provided guidance as all 58 counties developed plans for the care of youth who would previously have been sent to state-run youth prisons.

OYCR also provides ongoing technical assistance to improve conditions for youth in county care. For example, my team is currently working with substance use disorder treatment experts to develop workshops for county probation departments and behavioral health professionals on treating youth who are court-involved who have substance use disorder.


Working With Partners

We know that partnership is at the heart of driving change. OYCR intentionally works closely with partners including probation departments, higher education providers, behavioral health providers, and community-based organizations — those who are closest to the work and best understand the needs of both systems and youth. These are the kinds of transformative partnerships that would have been impossible at scale before the statewide transformation of youth justice.

California recently made an unprecedented investment in improving access to higher education for youth who are court-involved. The Rising Scholars program allows them to receive a community college education at a college campus with specialized resources. Project Rebound connects youth who were formerly incarcerated to higher education at participating California State Universities. Project Rebound students had an astounding 0% recidivism rate, proving that the power of higher education helps them successfully reintegrate into their communities. Our University of California system similarly supports youth who are justice-impacted through the Underground Scholars program.

Through the Ending Girls Incarceration initiative, OYCR provides funding and Vera provides technical assistance to Imperial, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego Counties — selected because of their bold plans to transform their youth justice systems. Through their participation in this program, the selected counties are committing to implementing equitable policies and gender-responsive programming to immediately reduce girls’ incarceration in their counties. OYCR plans to continue this work of assisting counties to eventually eliminate all girls’ incarceration in California.


The Future of Youth Justice

Following the closure of the statewide youth carceral system, in addition to our direct support and assistance to on-the ground organizations, we are using research and science to reframe youth who commit a law violation as adolescents, humans in process — not as fully formed adult criminals who need to be punished or stigmatized for the rest of their lives.

Counties are stepping into an era where they will be raising kids in custody for potentially years at a time. Together with collective courage, agreed commitment, and partners across the care system, we are changing the status quo and creating a world where our most vulnerable youth have a chance to not only be held accountable for their error, but are also cared for by professionals and communities who will make sure that they go to college, engage in careers, support their families, and grow into healthy adults. Just as we hope for our own children.