Ending “Solitary Confinement” of Youth in California
Sue Burrell and Ji Seon Song*
The United States juvenile justice system has experienced significant changes in the past
decade. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in California. 1 Advocates have
succeeded in reversing many punitive measures imposed under the influence of the super-predator
mythology of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 2 The reforms have not been accompanied by
increased crime. In fact, juvenile arrests have fallen precipitously since their peak in 1980.3 The
population in California’s state juvenile prison system has plummeted from over 10,000 in 19964
to 658 in late 2018.5
On September 27, 2016, California reached another milestone in juvenile justice when
Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1143, significantly restricting the use of locked room
*Sue Burrell is the Policy and Training Director for the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of legal representation and to assure fairness in California juvenile
proceedings. For much of the period discussed in this article, she was a Staff Attorney at the San Francisco-based
Youth Law Center. Ji Seon Song is the Thomas C. Grey Fellow and Lecturer in Law at Stanford University School of
Law. She serves on the Board of the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center, and for much of the period discussed in this
article, worked as an attorney for the Office of the Contra Costa County Public Defender.
1 See David Muhammad, California Is Becoming a Model of Juvenile Justice Reform, Thanks to Progressive
Legislation, JUV. JUST. INFO. EXCHANGE (Jan. 4, 2019).
2 The impact of “super-predator” mythology is discussed in Section II, infra. In addition to the legislation limiting
“room confinement” (the subject of this article), California has now prohibited the direct filing of cases against
juveniles in adult court by prosecutors; excluded 14- and 15-year-olds from eligibility for transfer to adult court except
in cases of delayed prosecution; excluded children under the age of 12 from prosecution as delinquents except in cases
of murder or specified sex cases; banned the practice of incarcerating truants for contempt; required that youth aged
15 and under in police custody be advised by an attorney before interrogation; limited the indiscriminate use of
shackling in juvenile courts and in transportation; guaranteed that youth receiving life without parole sentences in
adult court will eventually have a parole hearing; and limited fines and fees imposed on families. See CAL. WELF. &
INST. CODE § 707(a)( 1)(2016)(effective January 1, 2019); CAL. WELF & INST. CODE § 707(a)( 1)-( 2)(2016)(effective
January 1, 2019); CAL. WELF. & INST. CODE § 602(a)-(b) (2016)(effective January 1, 2019); CAL. WELF. & INST.
CODE § 601(b) (2014)(effective January 1, 2019); CAL. WELF. & INST. CODE § 625.6(a) (2017)(effective January 1,
2018); CAL. WELF. & INST. CODE § 210.6(a)( 1) (2017)(effective January 1, 2018); CAL. WELF. & INST. CODE §§
309(d)–(e) (2016) (effective January 1, 2019); CAL. PENAL CODE and CAL. WELF. & INST. CODE (2017). The text of
the bills is available on the California Legislative Information website,
http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billSearchClient.xhtml. See also Meredith Desautels & Ji Seon Song, Righting
the Ship on Juvenile Justice, S.F. DAILY J. (Oct. 27, 2017).
3 Mike Males, CTR. ON JUV. & CRIM. JUST., FACT SHEET: CALIFORNIA’S YOUTH AND YOUNG ADULT ARREST RATES
CONTINUE A HISTORIC DECLINE (Aug. 2016),
4 Dep’t of the Youth Auth. Research Div. Info. Sys. Unit, MONTHLY POPULATION REPORT AS OF MARCH 31, 1996,
5 Cal. Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab. Div. of Juv. Just. Corr. & Rehabilitation, FACILITY MOVEMENTS Oct. 1-31, 2018 (Nov.