Legislature Enacts “Secure” Track to Prevent Transfer to Adult Court

On May 14, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 92, creating a “Secure Youth Treatment Facilities” track for youth found to have committed serious offenses. This was one of the outstanding provisions remaining after SB 823 announced the closure of the state Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the “realignment” of youth to the care of counties in the 2020 legislative session.  The Legislature passed SB 823 with a stated intention of protecting against transfer of youth to the adult system once DJJ was no longer available. The protections against transfer  also included a delay in the close of DJJ intake in cases where a transfer motion was filed; raising the age of jurisdiction and the maximum age for local custody; and providing money to the counties to upgrade their facilities or develop new ones to meet the needs of the DJJ population. Although both bills were enacted as part of the budget process, PJDC has been able to provide important information and input to legislative staff.

Under the provisions of SB 92, youth 14 and older may be committed to a secure youth treatment facility if they are adjudicated and found to be a ward of the court for an offense on the Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b) list of serious offenses, and it is the most recent offense for which they have been adjudicated. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code, § 875.)  In order to commit the youth, the court must find that a less restrictive, alternative disposition for the ward is unsuitable.  The court must also consider a series of factors, including the offense, public safety, and the young person’s “delinquency” history, whether the secure youth treatment facility can meet the young person’s needs, and their “age, developmental maturity, mental and emotional health, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and any disabilities or special needs” affecting the safety or suitability of a secure track commitment. (Ibid.) The legislation thus reflects the need for a high-level option to prevent transfer in a small set of the most serious cases, but assures that most youth will be served in less restrictive settings.

Youth in the secure youth treatment track will be subject to a maximum confinement time set by the court. The court must also approve an individual rehabilitation plan for the youth within 30 days of the commitment. Initially the confinement time for offenses will be based on the matrix of confinement times used by DJJ, which are considerably longer than typical county level confinement times.  By July 1, 2023, however, the Judicial Council must develop and adopt a new matrix based on research and expert advice.  Youth in the secure track must have review hearings every six months, and the court has the power to modify the baseline term downward.  The court may release youth to less restrictive settings, including community-based programs if it is satisfied with their progress.

SB 92 also sets a firm closure date for DJJ on June 30, 2023, and requires the DJJ Director to develop a plan for the transfer of jurisdiction of youth remaining at DJJ as of that date. The legislation also includes placeholder language calling for additional language to be developed by July 1, 2021, to replace current DJJ laws allowing extended jurisdiction if they are determined to be physically dangerous to the public because of a mental or physical condition, disorder, or other problem that causes them to have serious difficulty controlling their dangerous behavior. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code, § 1800.)

While it is unusual for PJDC to support legislation that allows more lengthy confinement for youth, we know that without a secure track option that is credible to courts, many more youth would be relegated to the adult criminal justice system.  Accordingly, we worked closely with legislative staff and advocacy organizations across the state to help shape SB 92 to limit the youth who qualify for such treatment to those involved in the most serious offenses, assure that youth in the secure track receive a good rehabilitation plan that meets their individual needs, and provide good due process protections.  We will also continue to work with SB 823 implementation to encourage the development of alternatives to correctional type facilities in the counties, address racial disparities, and provide greater involvement of communities and community-based programs for youth.