February 15, 2024

Youth Law Center 2023 Advocacy for Impact: Part 2. Juvenile Justice Systems in California and Nationwide

The Youth Law Center’s advocacy work to change systems through impact litigation, movement lawyering, policy reform, collaboration, public education and training, and coalition building is unique. We integrate developmental research in practice and policy; use the law to define, protect, and affirm young people’s rights; mobilize lawyers and other advocates; and, most importantly, listen to and elevate the voices of children, youth, and families.

Our work is more important than ever, as communities and systems struggle with the lingering impact of the pandemic, climate disasters, economic and labor changes, and a growing acknowledgment of how racial injustice impacts the most vulnerable children and families. To meet these challenges, the Youth Law Center has increased our advocacy work to build the power of youth and families to lead change in foster care and juvenile justice, expand the community of advocates for our youth, and increase systems oversight and accountability.

Together with our supporters, we take pride in celebrating the hard earned victories that we have achieved. In this edition of our 2023 advocacy for impact series, we share some of our most significant victories from 2023 in our work in juvenile justice systems.

We advocated for increased state oversight of local juvenile detention facilities through increasing the power and utilization of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR) Ombudsperson office to monitor facilities and respond to complaints and advancing broader reforms in state rules and enforcement. The Youth Law Center and our partners achieved an important victory with passage of AB 505 this Fall, which protects the safety and dignity of all incarcerated youth by ensuring the new ombudsperson will be able to meet with youth and get access to facilities and records immediately and with no prior notice; requires judges to inspect all facilities where youth are incarcerated; ensures meaningful involvement of community members in the county juvenile justice planning process, and requires counties to submit annual reports on their progress.

We partnered with global law firm, Baker McKenzie, and filed and settled a lawsuit against Sacramento County on behalf of our client, Youth Forward, to protect and strengthen the rights of youth and families to participate in local juvenile justice policy making. With the closure of California’s state youth prisons this year and the transfer of responsibility for youth to local counties, the Youth Law Center stepped up to protect the rights of youth to participate in the local policy decisions that will shape their future by ensuring they have a meaningful seat at the planning table. In addition, the Youth Law Center released a written resource entitled Building Community Power in Youth Justice Reform: The Brown Act & Juvenile Justice Realignment in California. This resource is intended for advocates to use as they work to gain access to public bodies, and to assist them in demanding that public bodies operate in accordance with the public transparency laws.

We engaged in successful advocacy to create a California referral network of legal services attorneys to ensure that systems-impacted youth have access to specialty mental health services to which they are entitled to, by providing assistance with denials or delays in access. Without prompt access to these services, children and families are subjected to additional trauma, relationships can be destabilized, and youth may end up in institutional settings or homeless. This jointly created outreach document provides an overview for clients living in the 32 counties served by Legal Services of Northern California, as an example of one partner organization in this effort.

We launched a new project designed to invest in the power of students impacted by the juvenile justice system to be leaders in advocacy for expanded postsecondary education opportunities. The student leaders will be a powerful force in the statewide implementation of the new $15 million ongoing California community college budget investment Youth Law Center successfully won in 2022, and will advocate to position community colleges as an alternative to incarceration – each of California’s 52 counties also has a community college, and therefore an opportunity to partner with probation to serve juvenile-justice impacted students in a way that replaces their incarceration with on-campus supports and a real opportunity for a college degree.

In partnership with Disability Rights Tennessee we advanced efforts to educate lawmakers on the need to build alternatives to incarceration through the expansion of community-based, evidence-based services for youth impacted by the Tennessee juvenile justice system; and to immediately act to stop abuse of youth in existing detention facilities. We published Families, Not Facilities and led an effort to stop legislators from ramming through harmful youth justice bills during a special legislative session in Tennessee. The defeated bills would have created a new mandatory transfer provision for large categories of youth, resulted in more youth being held in adult jails and prisons and potentially subjected very young children to longer sentences than adults for the same offense.

We’ve just released a new report in partnership with Disability Rights Tennessee, A Call to Action: Advancing Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice System to Strengthen Families, Communities, and Oversight, on our work in Tennessee, which you can find at ylc.org/tennessee.