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Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Established in 1985 as the Western Regional Office of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA), the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) is a nonprofit nonpartisan organization promoting balanced and humane criminal and juvenile justice systems through the provision of direct services, technical assistance, and policy analysis. Our senior staff members possess over 30 years of experience in the criminal and juvenile justice field to include program operations, policy development and analysis, technical assistance, nonprofit management, program evaluation, and organizational reform.

California sentencing history

In July 1852, California opened its first land-based adult correctional institution, San Quentin State Prison, housing 68 inmates. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s California experienced low incarceration rates, and by 1940 state prisons housed only 8,180 inmates.

In 1977, the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL) passed in California, eliminating rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing in favor of more punitive practices that emphasized incarceration. Consequently, incarceration rates soared resulting in overcrowding and a deterioration of conditions within the state's prisons and jails.

In May 2011, pursuant to the Plata litigation the United States Supreme Court mandated that California reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates due to unconstitutional prison conditions. In response, Governor Brown passed Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109), which realigned responsibility for adult non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders to the county level. AB 109 was implemented on October 1, 2011.

Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Office of Research (2016). Rate per 100,000 population.

Juvenile justice in California

In 1858, California opened its first juvenile justice facility, the San Francisco Industrial School, to care for orphaned, abused, neglected, and delinquent children. In 1903, California became one of the first states to establish a separate court system for youthful offenders, acknowledging that youth were distinct from adults and deserving of individualized attention and rehabilitation.

The Industrial School closed in 1892 following 30 years of documented abuse and mismanagement, but its model of congregate institutional care remains the foundation of the state's youth correctional facilities. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, following concern about the rise of youth crime and system leniency, several punitive laws were passed including mandatory sentenced and automatic adult court transfers for certain crimes and the state institutional population began to grow.

Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Juvenile Research Branch (2016), California Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Statistics Center (2016). Rates per 100,000 population age 10–17.

In the 1990s, youth crime rates began to plummet. However, counties continued to heavily rely on state-run institutional care and the state facilities became overcrowded—peaking at 150% of design capacity. Violence in the facilities skyrocketed and rehabilitation became difficult.

In 1996, a sliding scale fee was introduced to provide accountability to counties who were unnecessarily sending low-level youth to the state facilities. In 2003, the Farrell litigation, a class action lawsuit was filed against the state facilities alleging the system was prison-like, violent, and failed to educate or rehabilitate its wards. The state entered into a consent decree, acknowledging the system's failures and agreeing to replace it with a modern, rehabilitative system. These events caused a dramatic decline in the state institutional population.

In 2007, Senate Bill 81 was passed, realigning non-violent, non-serious youth offenders to the local level and providing funding to county probation systems to improve their capacity to serve youth offenders. The bill resulted in a further decline in institutional commitments and spurred the development of innovative programs at the county level. As a result, counties are now serving 99% of justice-involved youth.


For information highlighting CJCJ's direct service programs, technical assistance, and other juvenile and criminal justice work; or to report an error:

(415) 621-5661 x 123

Electronic copies of CJCJ's research and policy analysis publications are also at CJCJ's online Resource Center.