California is the fifth-largest economy globally and one of the leading spenders in the prison system, as seen in the state’s 2021-22 budget, which allocates $17.3 billion to its judicial and criminal justice programs.
California has an opportunity to continue to reduce its dependency on prison spending and reliance on prison labor — such as in its voluntary firefighter workforce — by actively investing in programs and services that are proven to support incarcerated people instead of trapping them within the prison-industrial complex. One promising pathway to achieve prison abolition is through the healing justice and transformation frameworks that have proven to help incarcerated youth successfully exit the prison system.
Philanthropy California’s recent program, Incarcerated Firefighters: At the Intersection of Abolition, Workforce Development, and Wildfire Resilience, invited George Galvis (Executive Director, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice), Amika Mota (Policy Director, Young Women’s Freedom Center), Romarilyn Ralston (Program Director, Project Rebound, California State University - Fullerton), and Brandon Smith (Executive Director, Forestry & Fire Recruitment Program) to discuss California’s reliance on prison labor and the complex challenges these firefighters face during and after incarceration. In addition to elevating the ways funders could help incarcerated firefighters, our speakers discussed the larger goal of prison abolition, specifically through community-led solutions and healing justice. Below, you will find our speakers’ recommendations for how funders can support organizations implementing transformative healing frameworks to end youth incarceration.
Partner with the Community Groups Leading the Work
At one time, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation held 10,000 youth in prisons and would often integrate them with adult offenders in San Quentin and Folsom state prisons. Today, the number of youth in the remaining facilities operated by the state has reduced to 750 – a testament to the effectiveness of the rehabilitation programs the state has implemented and what can be accomplished when the state commits to ending youth imprisonment.
California’s commitment to end its 180-year history of youth imprisonment by 2023 is a direct result of decades worth of efforts led by advocates and community organizations working to end incarceration. As was the case with the advocacy concerning incarcerated firefighters, it is almost always community groups that take matters into their own hands instead of relying on the state to create the essential services their communities need.
Philanthropy can help further healing work, and alternatives to youth incarceration by investing in the infrastructure community groups have already built. By forging transformative partnerships with advocates and community groups, funders can learn about the unique challenges and needs communities are experiencing across California’s different counties. Additionally, grantmakers are more likely to support community-designed solutions and take risks with partners if they’ve invested time building trust and relationships.
Understanding Healing as a Strategy for Prison Abolition
Healing aims to replace punitive justice policies with alternatives that help people work through complex emotions such as grief and trauma while also addressing the root causes of their actions. Given the clear link between adverse childhood experiences, systemic inequity, and toxic stress, healing work hopes to halt the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Specifically, healing justice helps youth understand the ways unresolved trauma can surface and work in opposition to their wellness. It also gives them the tools needed to reclaim, relearn, and return to their authentic lives.
Invest in Diversion Programs an Alternative to Incarceration
Diversion programs utilize interventionist approaches to direct youth away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions. Many diversion programs are created and led by community organizations and advocates. For example, Dream Beyond Bars and Homies 4 Justice are programs that pair youth with mentors who have similar lived experiences instead of having them participate in a state program that many advocates attest exacerbates the cradle to prison pipeline. These programs center the experiences of those closest to the pain of incarceration because they understand that they are the ones most qualified to create healing solutions and support our youth in the system.
As California continues to close its remaining youth facilities and direct 92% of eligible youth toward diversion programs, the healing justice organizations leading this work will need resources to build their infrastructure. This support will allow them to continue to provide community-based solutions that prioritize compassion, accountability, and understanding with youth. Additionally, investing in youth’s future is a radical step in nurturing a holistic response inflicted by the trauma of incarceration.
Supporting Youth Not Eligible for Diversion
Even as youth prison programs in California shrink significantly, roughly 8% of youth will be ineligible for diversion or other rehabilitation programs. Ineligible youth will remain in custody under the jurisdiction of counties, which in turn might lead to an increase in youth receiving adult sentencing or shifting between the state and the county.
While the recently established Office of Youth and Community Restoration will work to ensure the long-term success of transitioning realigned youth to county-based custody, programs, and supervision, community groups will still need to design solutions to help incarcerated youth are coping with the realities that come with a newly appointed "adult" status in the prison system. Youth who have committed serious offenses are still young people under the age of 18 who need access to the path of rehabilitation, will need access to mental health resources, more robust academic supports, family counseling, and the essential social-emotional support children need to thrive. Community groups already working in the healing justice space within prisons will need infrastructure investment to continue their healing work to support all youth, not just those eligible for diversion programs.