While several key legislative measures to reform the criminal justice system were dealt stinging defeats earlier this session, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris has backed a key measure that would significantly limit the practice of isolating juveniles in room confinement.
Two weeks ago, Senator Mark Leno’s bill, SB 1143, passed the state senate. “The current overuse of this practice harms the emotional and mental health of the troubled youth in our care,” said Senator Leno. “Using room confinement as punishment in juvenile facilities is inhumane, unjust and ineffective.”
Juvenile justice and youth development experts recognize the harmful effects of room confinement to the rehabilitation of detained youth. More than 20 states ban the use of isolation for punitive reasons in juvenile facilities. In early 2016, President Obama issued an executive order limiting isolation for youth in federal juvenile facilities, and banning its use for the purposes of punishment and discipline.
Senate Bill 1143 provides a uniform definition of “room confinement” as the placement of a youth in a sleeping room or cell alone with minimal contact from facility staff. In addition, the bill provides that room confinement is limited to four hours generally, shall only be used after all less restrictive options have been exhausted, and cannot be used to the extent that it compromises the mental and physical health of the person.
“Subjecting young people to prolonged periods of isolated confinement is cruel, inhumane and counterproductive to rehabilitation. This unnecessary and punitive practice undermines the goal of helping this vulnerable young population become healthy and productive members of our society. Through this legislation and other reforms, California will lead the nation in providing standards that improve the safety and welfare of both youth and staff at juvenile facilities,” said Attorney General Harris.
She added, “I applaud Senator Leno for his leadership on this issue. I am proud to support common-sense, ‘smart on crime’ legislation that helps those currently and formerly incarcerated overcome obstacles to get their lives back on track, and meet their full potential.”
A critical part of the bill “expressly bans punitive, coercive, retaliatory confinement, as well as confinement used purely for convenience. It also expressly states that confinement shall not be used to the extent that the mental and physical health of the minor would be compromised.”
The bill then sets reasonable baselines for how long a minor may be confined prior to steps being taken to reintegrate them into the general population.
“The extensive support of SB 1143 is a testament to the harmful effects of prolonged confinement and isolation on the troubled youth in our care,” said Senator Leno. “This bill will help ensure detained young people receive the rehabilitative opportunities they need to safely reintegrate into the community. I am grateful for Attorney General Harris’s commitment to protecting vulnerable children in our state.”
On Tuesday, AG Harris also announced her support for two legislative proposals that would help individuals reintegrate into their communities and avoid return to custody.
“We must hold criminals accountable for their crimes, but our criminal justice system should also provide tools and support individuals in their efforts to successfully reenter society and rebuild their lives,” said Attorney General Harris. “I applaud Senator Mitchell and Assemblymember Stone for championing ‘smart on crime’ bills that will curb recidivism and help inmates get their lives back on track.”
Senate Bill 1157, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D- Los Angeles), would guarantee that city and county correctional facilities that elect to utilize video and electronic visitation also provide a certain number of in-person visits for their inmates.
Research shows that in-person visits are a crucial component of successful rehabilitation and reentry, and cultivating positive influencers in the inmates’ lives has been integral to Attorney General Harris’ recidivism reduction pilot program, Back on Track LA (Los Angeles). SB 1157 will be heard in Assembly Public Safety Committee this morning, Tuesday, June 21.
Assembly Bill 1597, authored by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D- Monterey), would enable inmates in county jail who have not yet been sentenced to earn credit reductions toward any resulting sentence by participating in rehabilitative programs and completing performance objectives known as “milestones.”
The bill would further specify that an inmate’s participation in such a program could not be used as evidence of guilt in court.
Under current law, only inmates who have been sentenced are eligible to participate in these programs and earn time off of their confinement. Studies show that inmates who receive educational and vocational training are much less likely to return to prison and much more likely to succeed upon reentry into the community.
AB 1597 was enrolled to the governor on Friday, June 17, and awaits his signature.
Attorney General Harris in her release touted her longtime leadership in the fight to curb recidivism in California.
In 2005, then-San Francisco District Attorney Harris created the original Back on Track initiative, a reentry program that aimed to reduce recidivism rates of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. The program successfully reduced recidivism among its graduates to less than 10 percent over a two-year period and was recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as a model for law enforcement.
In November 2013, Attorney General Harris created the Division of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry within the California Department of Justice. The office partners with counties, district attorneys and other community stakeholders to create effective practices and policy initiatives to address recidivism.
The Division has developed a statewide definition of recidivism, identified grants to fund the creation and expansion of innovative anti-recidivism programs, and used technology to more effectively analyze recidivism metrics and data.
In 2015, Attorney General Harris launched Back on Track LA, a pilot program in partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other public and private-sector partners to curb recidivism.
Back on Track LA provides participants with the services and support needed for a seamless transition from in-custody to out-of-custody life, including cognitive behavioral therapy and academic and career-technical training while in custody and employment, housing and continuing education opportunities after release.