Ex-judge leads plan to overhaul California’s juvenile justice system

Credit: Josie Lepe

Katherine Lucero, director of the Office of Youth and Community Restoration at the California Health and Human Services Agency.

Judge Katherine Lucero is tasked with leading the massive transformation of its juvenile justice system in California by June 2023, a change brought about by the signing of Senate Bill 823 in 2020. The Juvenile Justice Division of the state will effectively be shut down, and any youth who previously would have been sent to one of its four facilities will now be placed in juvenile facilities within their own county. There are approximately 600 young men and women currently housed in the state’s four facilities.

Late last year, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Lucero as director of the new Office of Youth and Community Restoration, which was created by SB 823. Lucero is the daughter of farmhands who has experience as a Juvenile Dependency Court Commissioner and most recently as Santa Claus. Clara County Superior Court judge for 20 years. This is a full-time position that pays $194,868 per year. The new office is headquartered in Sacramento.

Known as OYCR, the office is housed within the California Health and Human Services Agency, rather than the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a move that signals its new goals and emphasizes taking a more holistic approach to rehabilitating youth in its care.

The new office is tasked with rehabilitating youth between the ages of 13 and 25 who have historically been tried through the state’s juvenile court system. They were tried for serious or violent offenses, which could include burglary, assault, homicide and other crimes.

The average age of youth in state correctional facilities is 19, with a disproportionate majority, 88% in 2020, identifying as Black and Latino.

This interview with Lucero has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How has your career prepared you to lead this change with SB 823?

We believe that all young people deserve to be treated fairly, that all young people deserve to get back on track and to have the support they need to get back on track, even young people who have committed most violent crimes. I saw from beginning to end, so to speak, with the children, being on the bench of child protection courts and juvenile court.

I’ve read thousands of files…and I can say that young people who commit violent crimes, the majority of them are known to the child welfare system. If not fully engaged, at least there were many, many red flags that these children and their families needed strong healing and trauma-based interventions. Our young people who are in the juvenile justice system can easily count many of the negative childhood experiences on the ACE assessment in all their forms: family violence, community violence, violence that stems from living in the poverty, the incarceration of parents, the emotional and psychological toll this takes on our youth.

The change needed is one that fully embraces the role that all of our government entities have played in the life of the child offender and provides a path of return and healing that allows children to become the best version of themselves. … No one should ever be labeled and made to pay for something that happened while they were in the full developmental teenage phase of their life. Terrible mistakes can be made and terrible mistakes can be rectified.

How is your team preparing to support counties when it comes to meeting the educational needs of youth in custody?

I have rarely seen a child in my court in custody if they were engaged, enrolled and attending school, so I am acutely aware of the need for us to help counties get children back to school . Many of the children I saw were out of school before their juvenile offenses for weeks, months, and sometimes years. I was always in shock if I had a 15 year old who hadn’t been to school for two years. I just thought – how did this happen?

So how do we engage counties? We provide technical support. We make sure there is training available for every county, for every chief of probation, every district attorney and every public defender on how to ensure our children have excellent educational experiences in custody, and then to bring this bridge back to their mainstream schools or alternative schools, if needed.

I want every young person and their family to understand their child’s education rights and, if necessary, I want every young person to have access to an education rights lawyer so that we can ensure that young people obtain the maximum rights within the school framework. .

Each county in the state has submitted a plan for how it intends to support youths who, prior to SB 823, would have been transferred to a state Juvenile Justice Division facility. What do you and your team look for in each county plan when reviewing them?

First, we seek to gather baseline data, to determine what types of programs are in place or whether they are planning to put them in place. Second, we are looking for areas where counties excel and where they could benefit from some type of technical assistance.

The OYCR wants to be a kind of clearing house for that. We plan to have county liaisons and I want each county liaison to have this training and the ability to advise the county. If liaisons come to the county and the county has a weakness, say in education or in data collection, I want us to be able to support that county and make sure they feel they have everything what they need to do what they need to do to make sure young people succeed.

We are going to have children in their communities, and we are going to bring them back welcomed, healed and forgiven because that is how we are going to run things.

The legislation establishing this new office provides annual funding of $7.6 million. There is also a one-time funding contribution of approximately $27 million. Is it enough to do the job?

I think it’s about working smarter and being organized and looking at the OYCR as an umbrella organization to bring together the best minds that can identify resources that already exist in many ways, but perhaps need to be channeled differently.

I’m looking to hire a Chief Health Policy Officer because I want to examine: How can we use mental health dollars? How can we use Title IV-E dollars? How can we look at the Family Services Prevention Act and AB 2083 mandates to really start digging in and mixing and braiding funding and providing counties with ways to access resources? I don’t think a pot of money really solves the problems. I think what solves the problems is people thinking, looking at each child, what they need, what the counties need, and then trying to match the resources to the needs.

County plans, as they currently stand, vary a bit. How do you deal with variations as you work to create standard guidelines?

We design regional approaches. We will have county liaisons and we try to tailor our technical assistance to the needs and culture of each county. We expect County Liaisons to work closely with county stakeholders, all of them: probation, social services, mental health, behavioral health, youth advocates, education providers.

There are challenges. On the ground, you know, with the 58 counties, there are political issues. But we’re looking to provide that kind of high-level leadership with policies and best practices, and then where we need to address the barriers and the issues in every county, we certainly will. And then we will work with as many partners as possible to ensure that young people are not affected by political barriers or the political climate of a particular county. My focus is on how to make sure these kids are taken care of and that we don’t lose track.

There are fears that the challenges DJJ has faced — and the vast institutional system in which DJJ operates — will be replicated at the county level once DJJ’s facilities close completely next year. In what ways are you and your team working to ensure county facilities stay true to the intent of SB 823?

We will have an ombudsman’s office. If there are issues where young people feel they need our ombudsman to resolve complaints, there is this very individualized concern that our young people are cared for and placed in a therapeutic and healing environment. The family can also use the ombudsman division.

But more than that, we are going to be involved in the overhaul of the installation regulations. The OYCR must commit to and agree to the regulations that will oversee the facilities. We will also agree with some of the subsidies.

It will not be possible to return by default to a DJJ atmosphere, which had a large number of young people taken care of collectively, in a sort of institutional framework. The research and the data, none of that says it’s good for kids. It is harmful. These children will be close to home. I hope they will see their family several times a week, even have access to their own children, if they are parents or have children on the way. I’m sure people are scared, but it’s a transformation happening.

We are not going to have children placed away from their families in collective care and forgotten. We are going to have children in their communities, and we are going to bring them back welcomed, healed and forgiven because that is how we are going to run things.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I just want us all to remember that they are children, that they committed offenses before the age of 18, and we have no information that keeping them incarcerated for years and years is helpful to the child or the community. We really need to look at what information we have that allows a child to heal from a very traumatic event.

How do we ensure that our communities are healed, but how do we also ensure that these young people can safely reintegrate into society, and how can we give these young people a second chance? Because if there’s anyone on the planet, anyone on the planet who’s made a terrible mistake who deserves a second chance, it’s a child. I just want us to really embrace this concept and figure out how to move forward together in this regard.

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