Changes in Juvenile Court

Twenty twenty-one has been another year marked by challenges, resilience and significant changes within the landscape of juvenile justice. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Juvenile Court continued to conduct many hearings via a remote platform. The courthouse was closed to the public from Monday, December 7, 2020, to March 30th, 2021, during which time all cases were heard via Zoom, except for matters that required live appearances.

Upon the courthouse reopening, the majority of the calendars continued to be conducted remotely in the morning session, while the afternoon sessions were reserved for live in-person proceedings. Effective June 23rd, 2021, in alignment with the evolving recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and County Public Health Department, as well as the Governor’s lifting of the state emergency orders, the courthouse resumed full court operations and ended the Zoom calendars. Several weeks later, due to the uptick in COVID-19 positivity rates associated with the Delta variant, the courthouse reinitiated remote calendars effective August 9, 2021. Throughout the various phases and transitions of the limited courthouse operations, juvenile dependency/juvenile justice stakeholders continued to collaborate and cooperate in the ever-changing improvised processes of safely maintaining access to the court.

During the last year, sweeping progressive reforms have been made in the juvenile justice realm.  On September 30, 2020, Governor Newsom signed Senate Bill 823, (Juvenile Justice Realignment), effectively triggering a timeline for the complete closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) within the Department of Corrections, and establishing the Department of Youth and Community Restoration under the umbrella of California Health and Human Services. Essentially, the Department of Youth and Community Restoration is vested with the powers, functions, responsibilities, etc., previously under the jurisdiction of the Division of Juvenile Justice, thus shifting supervision responsibility of youth realigned from DJJ or youth who would previously have been eligible for commitments to DJJ, to local county probation departments. Effective July 1, 2021, DJJ stopped accepting new commitments with the sole exception of youth who had pending motions to transfer to adult court.

In preparation for the huge undertaking of creating an infrastructure to establish a county-based secure program for realigned youth, the Chief Probation Officer, Esa Ehmen-Krause, has competently and effectively spearheaded a multi-agency group of stakeholders (Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council Subcommittee) tasked with creating a comprehensive plan implementing the mandated transition from state run DJJ facilities to local juvenile probation department supervision. Senate Bill 823 established a Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant program to assist in allocating funds to support the county-based programs for realigned youth and mandated that each county create a subcommittee tasked with developing a plan describing the evidence-based programming, services, placements, supervision and reentry strategies necessary to provide rehabilitation to the targeted juvenile justice-involved population. Starting in late October of 2020, the DJJ Realignment subcommittee began meeting, initially on a monthly basis, increasing to a weekly schedule in preparation for the initial plan to be submitted by the March 2021 deadline. Members representing Probation, the District Attorneys Office, the Office of the Public Defender, Department of Social Services, the Office of Education, the Court and members of the community collaborated with the assistance of the Project Manager consultant, Impact Justice, in drafting the plan.

As the July 1, 2021 deadline approached, after which no further commitments could be made to DJJ (except for the minors pending transfer motions), a trailer bill (Senate Bill 92) was enacted on May 14th, 2021, providing the statutory framework for dispositional findings committing eligible youth to the new county-based Secure Youth Treatment Facility (SYTF). In accordance with the directives of SB 92, the Contra Costa County Juvenile Probation Department created a new program at Juvenile Hall, the Briones Youth Academy—Secure Pathway. Upon a commitment to the Briones Youth Academy, Senate Bill 92 requires the development of an individualized rehabilitation plan for each youth within 30 days, and procedure for setting progress reviews, at least every six months. Senate Bill 92 also specified the final closure date for DJJ as June 30, 2023. The Juvenile Justice Realignment is a radical departure from the previous oversight and administration of DJJ within the California Department of Corrections. The Contra Costa County Juvenile Probation Department has remarkably risen to this herculean challenge.

Another recently enacted law impacting both dependency and juvenile justice cases is the Family First Prevention Services Act. Effective October 1, 2021, whenever Children and Family Services or the Probation Department intends to place a minor in a Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Program (STRTP), a court hearing must be held to determine whether the court approves the out of home placement. Previously, minors could be placed in STRTP’s without obtaining prior sanctioning by the court. The procedure now entails the submission of a report containing an assessment and recommendations from a Qualified Individual (QI) for the court to review in determining whether the placement is appropriate to serve the needs of the youth. Given the extremely limited time to implement the procedure for court review of the placement requests, both the Children and Family Services Bureau and the Probation Department have established procedures in compliance with the new law.

As 2021 draws to a close, with hopes that we have shifted the tide of COVID-19 pandemic, I would like to acknowledge the truly special community of dedicated dependency and juvenile justice stakeholders, court staff and countless others who have rallied together to ensure continued access to the courts through previously unimaginable challenges. When tasked with the multi-faceted and complicated mandate of restructuring and creating the implementation plan for DJJ realigned youth, a successful Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant Annual Plan was published on October 14th, 2021. In light of multiple permutations and changes in the courthouse operations, everyone worked collaboratively to facilitate ongoing uninterrupted court calendars and evidentiary hearings. Lastly, I thank my dear colleagues, Judge Anita Santos and Judge John Kennedy, for their incredibly hard work and commitment to serving the youth and families of the county.