How the Youth Bill of Rights Impacts California’s Juvenile Justice System

A group of teens loitering under a bridge

As of September 2022, teenagers across California have recently been granted some additional protection under the law with the signing of The Youth Bill of Rights by Governor Gavin Newsome. This bill was a long-time goal for many juvenile justice advocacy groups that outlines human rights incarcerated youth inside county juvenile facilities can now rely on should they encounter problems. While many citizens recognize that California’s three state-run youth prisons no longer accept newly convicted teens, you may have questions about why this legislation is necessary and how it affects your loved ones. So today, I will cover the details of AB 2417 to give you a better understanding of juvenile law here in California.

Overview of AB 2417 – The Youth Bill of Rights

With the passing of SB 823, California has mandated that all state-run juvenile prisons be officially closed by 2023. At that time, the Department of Juvenile Justice will cease to exist, and all convicted juveniles will become the responsibility of their local counties. Under previous legislation, the Youth Bill of Rights protected wards at state-run facilities only, not at the county level. As a result, juvenile justice advocates and legislators have stressed the need for those rights to remain in effect for all 58 California counties to ensure children receive current protections after the transition.

AB 2417 is a re-enactment of the original Foster Youth Bill of Rights that provides wards and their parents with literature that makes them aware of existing rights. This bill empowers youth with legal rights to protect themselves from abuse and mistreatment inside local lockups. It also guarantees rights such as fair access to health care services and protection from corporal punishment, sexual abuse, harassment, and unnecessary searches. No longer is the use of shackles for detention acceptable, and youth are guaranteed protection during interrogations. With the Youth Bill of Rights, juvenile law in California is taking a positive step forward in its commitment to making the state a more rehabilitative system for our troubled teens.

History of Juvenile Law in California

Teddy bear stuck in barbed wire at a detention facility

For decades, the California Youth Authority allegedly abused its power in ways previously thought unimaginable, with wards subjected to excessive force and staff apathy in the face of pleas for protection against sexual harassment, assault, and even rape. Reports and studies pointed to disproportionately high levels of segregation used as severe punishment, combined with dangerously insufficient medical and mental health care. State-run facilities received harsh criticisms for years for their egregious lack of education, substance abuse treatment, and exercise, as well as no policies or procedures for youth with disabilities or allowing religious practice.

As a result, multiple investigations and lawsuits occurred from 1999 to 2007, which shaped the Department of Juvenile Justice. During that year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 81 into law which placed a limit on the type of offenders that could be sent to California juvenile prisons while providing funding for county judicial systems to increase their capacity for more serious offenders. Despite this effort, it remained clear there was a breakdown in leadership at the California Youth Authority for years which has had negative consequences for generations of youths. However, over the past few years, juvenile law in California has taken a positive turn away from abuse and neglect toward counseling and educating offenders.

What To Do if Rights Are Compromised or Violated

Under the Youth Bill of Rights, juvenile offenders have a chance for a fair and humane experience in the legal system at the state and county levels. Inside the bill, 18 issues are addressed, including the right to a safe and healthy environment, access to clean water, daily showers, personal hygiene items, healthy food, clean clothing, and underwear, to name a few. When youths are arrested or detained by law enforcement, they must be informed of their rights and granted access to legal counsel before questioning. Other rights include the right to receive timely notice of any hearings scheduled, the right to communications between youths and their family members and attorney, and the right to timely court proceedings. If a juvenile feels violated or has complaints, they have access to an ombudsman whose primary job is to find appropriate solutions or refer the problem to a third party.

The ombudsman’s role in the process is critical at the state and county levels. Without them, it would be impossible to provide youths with an impartial liaison to protect their rights according to juvenile laws in California. The Youth Bill of Rights ensures offenders in the justice system have access to equal opportunities, are treated with fairness, respect, and appropriate services, as well as competency-based opportunities for development and progress. The ombudsman helps to protect these rights by responding to complaints from youths, communicating information between youths and other departments, investigating cases when necessary, and assisting youths in advocating for themselves.

County Responsibilities Under the New Legislation

Ward returning to facility after speaking with attorney

California’s Youth Bill of Rights sets forth the expectations all 58 counties must uphold regarding juvenile law and their responsibility towards youths. Orientation must be age-appropriate, and counties must provide wards with copies of the bill and its accompanying responsibilities. Moreover, these rights should be viewable throughout living units, classrooms, and other high-traffic areas where juveniles and staff are most likely to see them. Additionally, all orientation packets presented to parents or guardians of youth in care should include the Youth Bill of Rights and come in multiple languages to ensure everyone involved is aware of their rights.

Ultimately, California counties are responsible for ensuring safety, dignity, and impartiality for all youths regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, HIV status, or immigration status. In addition, it is the counties’ responsibility to ensure that wards know they have the right to contact attorneys and provide them with information for the state ombudsperson office. Furthermore, counties must grant access to postsecondary academic and career technical education programs and information regarding parental rights. In this way, wards and their families will better understand what to expect from juvenile laws here in California and be more prepared to make decisions on rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

How AB 2417 Affects Parents, Families, and Communities

AB 2417 has revolutionized juvenile legislation in California, including the Youth Bill of Rights and the shutdown of the Division of Juvenile Justice. With signage and educational material informing juveniles about their rights under this law, constituents expect facilities to comply with these standards, creating a much better atmosphere for wards of the state within the system. By keeping youths within their local communities and allowing them to stay connected with family, parents and advocates can expect a lower chance of reoffending in the future. Minors already incarcerated in state juvenile prisons will remain there until released or turn 25. Once all current inmates are out of the system, the Division of Juvenile Justice will close its doors for good.

In 2020, SB 823 created a new Office of Youth and Community Restoration and the position of ombudsman mentioned above. With their help, juveniles have the means to express their concerns and foster trust in a historically abusive system. The Office of Youth and Community Restoration’s primary tasks are to help youths avoid transfer to adult prisons, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, and invest in community-based approaches to interventions and methods that help keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. As such, AB 2417 is an integral legal overhaul that many hope will bring positive change for youths across the state and build trust in juvenile law in California.

As youths and families across California continue to interact with local law enforcement and counties, we must all work together to ensure that juvenile law in our state is fair and just. I believe that with the passing of AB 2417, including the ombudsman position created by SB 823, youth can trust that their rights are being heard and respected. If you or a loved one feel there has been a violation of your rights, contact me immediately. As a criminal defense and family law attorney, I possess a unique skill set that will guide you through any legal issues you may face for the best outcome. Call 858-922-7098 today to schedule a consultation.

About Michael MacNeil

Michael C. MacNeil is a San Diego Family Law and Criminal Defense attorney. With a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law, MacNeil has a solid understanding of our justice system. As a member of the State Bar of California, MacNeal can practice before all courts in the state. MacNeil believes that the law should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. With over 20 years of experience, Michael C. MacNeil is passionate about the law and will work tirelessly to get the best possible outcome for you. Call Mr. MacNeil at 858-922-7098.