Viewpoints

California’s juvenile reform plan must lead to wider changes and true justice

Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, addresses youthful offenders taking a computer coding class at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Stockton, Calif. Newsom is proposing to put California’s juvenile prisons under the state’s Health and Human Services Agency instead of the same agency that runs adult prisons. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, addresses youthful offenders taking a computer coding class at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Stockton, Calif. Newsom is proposing to put California’s juvenile prisons under the state’s Health and Human Services Agency instead of the same agency that runs adult prisons. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) AP

At his inauguration, Gov. Newsom made a bold promise to tear down California’s juvenile justice system and replace it with a smarter approach.

What most Californians may not realize is that this is about more than teens and criminal justice. If Newsom is successful, he may actually strike a dagger into the heart of the broader, failed and, yes, racist criminal justice status quo.

So, what is Newsom really doing, and why is it so important?

This plan is not about ignoring youth crime. To the contrary, it’s about preventing it and putting kids on a better, more successful path in life. The decades-old justice system for kids lands on one solution – incarceration – for almost every social dysfunction affecting them. Smoking pot? Jail. Missing school? Jail. Fighting with other kids? Jail.

Using prison as a palliative for struggling teens is double jeopardy for California, and for the kids themselves.

Kids with developmental or emotional issues, many of them grappling with trauma or poverty, need counseling, mentoring and special attention in school. When they don’t get the care they need, they’re more likely to make mistakes and act out. And putting kids in lock-up only leads to more emotional, and even physical, damage. This means that, once they’re in prison, they’re more likely to stay there.

Then, guess what? Kids become adults in prison.

This is a big reason why the United States has the largest population of incarcerated people in the world. And it’s why we call it the school-to-prison pipeline.

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Katharine Huffman

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Mike McBride

Gov. Newsom is not just reforming the juvenile system. He’s also trying to change it at its foundation. By moving struggling kids into the health system rather than the justice system, he’s making historic change.

There’s a hunger to do more for the broader justice system. California has started to find its path out of the “lock ‘em up” approach to justice with ballot initiatives that are reducing prison overcrowding, shortening sentences and increasing access to bail. Last month, Gov. Newsom hit pause on executions.

These reforms are important, but they’re just that: reforms. Tinkering with a broken system, no matter how well intentioned, still leaves you with a broken system.

Instead of tinkering, we need to do two things: bulldoze and rebuild.

Just like in the juvenile system, we use adult prisons as a solution for every social ill: chronically neglected neighborhoods, racism, failing and underfunded schools, unaddressed addiction and mental health issues. Even the best intentions of police or judges cannot overcome this fundamental flaw.

If we’re serious about justice that reflects true American values, we must bulldoze through the dehumanization that permeates our prisons and stop sabotaging neighborhoods that bear the brunt of – and feed – the crumbled justice system.

We can rebuild justice with new ideas. Part of that work happened this past weekend at Merritt College in Oakland. Advocates, justice practitioners, researchers and community leaders huddled for three days to figure out what justice will look like once we’ve extracted the roles of racism and poverty from the status quo. This convening was part of a broader project called Square One, housed at Columbia University.

There is an incredible amount at stake with Newsom’s plans: the lives of the young people themselves, the moral underpinnings of our state and the health and safety of our neighborhoods. Just as important, if the governor is successful, he may shine a spotlight on the path forward for a new kind of justice in the U.S. – one that’s, once and for all, true to the word justice.

Pastor Michael McBride is National Director at Faith in Action’s Urban Strategies and LIVE FREE campaign and is founder of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, where he is lead pastor.

Katharine Huffman is executive director of The Square One Project and a principal at The Raben Group, a public affairs firm based in Washington, D.C.

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