California is shutting down its Department of Juvenile Justice—but we shouldn't celebrate yet


by Ray Uyeda

In May, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that in preparation for a budget shortfall, the state would be closing its remaining juvenile prisons faster than planned. Earlier in the year, Newsom had announced that the state would be phasing out its Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

When Newsom made the announcement that each of the 750 young people under DJJ supervision would be transferred back to county juvenile jails or to state-run adult prisons, there was a brief moment of celebration for the work that so many Black and brown leaders have been pushing for. No child should be in jail, they noted, and certainly no child should be subject to the well-documented, trauma-inducing treatment by corrections officers employed by the state at juvenile prisons. It has also been demonstrated that youth who are incarcerated closer to their families and home communities are more successful when they’re released. A number of incarcerated young people lived more than 100 miles from their homes, making it difficult or impossible for family members to visit.

Make no mistake, however, as to the true nature of why Newsom made this announcement when he did.

Abolitionist and academic Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote that the creation of California’s prison system was “a geographical solution to social and economic problems.” In that teaching, the dissolution of the youth incarceration arm of the state’s Department of Justice is a budgetary solution to our interwoven systems of racist and classist inequality, not a refutation of incarcerating youth. 

In fact, making a choice to protect the economic interests of the state of California rather than intentionally correcting the injustices perpetrated by incarceration only serves to reify the understanding that prisons are costly endeavors, and that the management of capital has always been fundamental to the goals of incarceration. In that sense, both capitalistic values and those of incarceration as punishment are intertwined and heralded by the state as fundamental. As Angela Davis wrote in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, “The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.” A just transition out of California prison culture asks the question: What exactly are prisons good for?

A “just transition,” a term utilized by the Green New Deal throughout its text as a guiding principle for change, is described by Movement Generation as “the process of getting from where we are to where we need to be by transforming the systems of economy and governance.”

“Transition is inevitable,” they say. “Justice is not.”

We know that most young people incarcerated by the state are teens of color, come from poor backgrounds, may lack access to consistent meals, or have difficulty in school, and we also know that most teen girls we incarcerate are survivors of abuse and sexual trauma. It would seem then, that we incarcerate young people because of our widening racial wealth gap, because the cheapest food is the worst for our brains and the best tends to be located in wealthier neighborhoods, and because we would rather suspend, expel, or arrest Black and brown students rather than meet their emotional and interpersonal needs. Across the country there are currently 14 million students in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. How would our youth fare if we diverted the annual $284,700 in tax dollars we spend to lock them up on community-based social programs, teacher salaries, and healthy and delicious school meals? We spend $11,495 on each student in California, but closing DJJ won’t increase our education budget. This is the result of policy decisions rooted in monetary values that favor less expensive incarceration rather than questioning the efficacy of incarceration itself.

Yes, this is a small win. Advocates have been pushing for the closure of DJJ for years. Its alarming and violent conditions (and yes, that’s violence funded by the state) would be categorized as child abuse. However, reducing the number of people incarcerated by the state does not rid society of racist and classist notions that crime and criminality are inherent to those with Black and brown bodies, nor does closing state prisons address the history of prison culture in California and use of incarceration and management of bodies as a tool for maintaining economic wealth and white supremacy. We must acknowledge that prisons actively cause harm and create the conditions of criminality; if we measure criminality in terms of harm done to community, policymakers would be wont to learn that prisons are criminal, not the people locked in them.

In many ways, what’s happening now is a preamble for what’s to come. Public spending in California will balloon to meet ever-expanding social safety nets. Fire season will soon be upon us, and the state will spend tens of millions of dollars on wages and resources. Our population is growing, which means that we’ll need more housing, more teachers, more public transportation, and fast. As Newsom demonstrated just a few weeks ago, we simply cannot afford to pay for our state-run prisons.

But an inability to pay for incarceration is no reason to do nothing at all. We know that this is a fraught missive offered by those on the right (and many, too, on the left) that says justice is too expensive. Does this then mean that white supremacy is cheap? Political action is motivated by morals, and we’re seeing now the harm of transitioning institutions without centering long-term community health, well-being, and interdependence.

Ray Uyeda is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers activism and politics. Find her on Twitter @raylevyuyeda

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