System Failure

08:00 min
Producer: Witness and Co-Producer, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Winner of the Criminal Justice Award


More About System Failure from Producer WITNESS

Juvenile justice in California is a national embarrassment, a statewide disaster and a source of rich profit for a small number of entrenched interests. At the center of this issue is the California Youth Authority (CYA), the formal prison system for youths in California. Presently, the CYA is composed of eight institutions housing more than 4,000 youth. Stories have been emerging for decades in the media and courts of rampant human rights violations of youths imprisoned in the CYA–violations that include sexual abuse, beatings, forced medication and systemic medical and educational neglect. 2004 saw the release of a number of CYA-approved reports as part of a lawsuit. To quote California State Senator Gloria Romero, “the recently released reports on the Youth Authority were a stinging indictment on the conditions of confinement and the programs offered in its prisons. The reports were so damning, in fact, that they even surprised some of CYA’s most ardent critics.” This was followed in rapid succession by the suicide of two CYA wards, a formal congressional hearing and a videotaped beating of two CYA wards by prison guards that made state and national headlines. 

Despite emerging scandals, outrageous recidivism rates (estimated at more than 90%) and a cost to the taxpayers of over $80,000 per year, per ward, little change has taken place. A large part of the reason why lies with the prison guards, whose union is “the most powerful labor organization in the State of California” and who contribute more to California candidates than any other organization.  For decades they have blocked reform and enforced a code of silence that fills their coffers and protects their members at the expense of youths, families and public safety.

Nationally, California stands in sharp contrast to a number of states who have reformed or are in the process of reforming their juvenile justice systems, replacing punishment for punishment’s sake with rehabilitative, restorative justice models. One state that has established itself as a national model is Missouri. In Missouri, regional rehabilitation centers are used instead of huge, warehouse-like prisons.  These smaller facilities keep youth close to their communities and families and focus on healing, training, education and counseling in an environment that more closely resembles a boarding school than it does a prison. With costs per youth nearly half of what they are in California and a recidivism rate 6 times lower than California’s, the Missouri model has proven itself to not only be more humane and more holistic, but also more affordable and more effective.

System Failure exposes the failures of the CYA through the stories of the children and families caught in the machinery of California’s juvenile prisons, reinforced by a cross section of experts and policymakers. Juvenile Justice in California is currently at a critical juncture in its history. A wave of scandals paired with a change in administration that is seemingly amenable to reform has created a window of opportunity to leverage this project in such a way that coming reforms are wider, deeper and more systemic than those that might occur otherwise. The video is directed toward policymakers, parents of imprisoned children, and community organizations that can be mobilized to call for a total reform of the system.

Steps towards meaningful reform is underway, as a result of a screening of the full length version of System Failure at the California State Capitol on January 19th 2005, State Senator Gloria Romero (D) announced five days later that she will introduce sweeping legislation to completely overhaul the CYA.


criminal justice, Media That Matters 5,
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