Unlocking Opportunity: New Burns Institute Report Highlights Disparities in California’s Youth Justice System

Every night in California, nearly 4,000 youth lay their heads to sleep out of their homes, out of their community and away from their families as the result of a court ordered placement. Youth of color comprise the vast majority of these youth (88 percent). In fact, at every decision-making point in the youth justice system in California, youth of color bear the brunt of more restrictive options.


Data reported to California’s Department of Justice and to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicate that most youth who are placed out of home do not pose a public safety threat.

Equally important, a vast body of research reveals that youth who spend time in institutional placements experience diminished life outcomes. Institutional placement can impede positive adolescent development, relationships with family and peers, educational outcomes, and future economic mobility.

Over the past decade, Californians’ reliance on the youth justice system has declined. The number of arrests, referrals to probation, youth adjudicated delinquent, and youth who are sent to institutional placements have all decreased. Despite a significant decline in placements to Division of Juvenile Justice facilities since the passage of “juvenile justice realignment” (Senate Bill 81) in 2007, reductions in institutional placements have not kept pace with reductions in arrests and referrals to probation.

A new report from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, “Unlocking Opportunity: How Race, Ethnicity, and Place Affect the Use of Institutional Placements in California” presents an analysis of available state and county level data about the use of out of home placement in the state. While the overall likelihood of out of home placement is dependent upon location, youth of color are more likely than White youth to be sent out of home in 41 of California’s 58 counties.

These data, as well as what we know about the negative impacts of institutional placement, are a call to action. Decision makers must curtail their use of institutional placement and invest in community-based, culturally relevant supports that promote well-being for youth who are most impacted.

Download the complete report here 

For more information, please contact:

Laura Ridolfi at lridolfi@burnsinstitute.org

Anna Wong at awong@burnsinstitute.org