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Girls and young women in California to receive support instead of jail
Successful pilot program is disrupting 'school-to-prison pipeline' in Santa Clara County

Young person outside smiling. Wearing headphones

Girls and young women in Santa Clara County are receiving additional community support and services instead of being sent to youth jails. This much-needed reform to help youth grow and learn, instead of being subject to harsh discipline, marks an expansion of a pilot program that is chipping away at the so-called 'school-to-prison pipeline', which ensnares children and youth with punishment instead of supporting them in their development.

The pilot, first launched in Santa Clara County in 2018 has helped improve the lives of hundreds of girls and young women, and is supported by Compassionate Education Systems, a National Center for Youth Law initiative. National Center for Youth Law leaders working closely with youth found that most incarcerated girls and young women were in jail due to having nowhere safe to go. Even when probation officials recommended their release, they'd often remain locked up if they lacked safe housing. This was often compounded by underlying issues around lack of education, economic, and housing support. 

National Center for Youth Law program leaders, who work directly with and advocate on behalf of students involved in the juvenile justice system, called on local courts, the county probation department and other community-based organizations to partner and ensure these youth are not only released or prevented from being locked up in the first place, but also receive education and other supportive services.

Since the launch of the pilot program, the detention of girls dropped 58% countywide. The pilot also has had a major positive impact within local Santa Clara County schools, which are partnering to ensure youth receive access to the education they deserve.

"This has been a game-changer," said Joy Hernandez, a Compassionate Education Systems program manager in Santa Clara County. "Students are often disconnected from school while going through the long court process and unable to access services. To address this, we are able to offer support as soon as a student comes into contact with the justice system and begin problem solving education barriers with students and caregivers in hopes of preventing them from falling further behind."

Keeping youth connected in schools

As part of a larger county effort to improve education outcomes, the Compassionate Education Systems Initiative provides educational support to students involved in the juvenile justice system. Hernandez and her team serve as student allies and liaisons between students and schools. Her team receives notices from the probation department if a student needs help and can intervene and offer guidance or assistance before a student has been placed on probation.

This is unique because students typically would need to be incarcerated or placed on probation before receiving similar supports.

Hernandez's team includes four education liaisons who partner with school sites and probation officers. Since the launch of the pilot in Santa Clara County, the team has served 220 students, covering all 12 high school-serving districts, and recently began working with middle school students.

Being able to connect these students with support is critical. In Santa Clara County, prior to the pilot, the majority of girls in youth jails had been disconnected, expelled or suspended from their school prior to their arrest. About 80% of them had experienced homelessness before entering the juvenile justice system.

County leaders commitment to partnership and change

The Compassionate Education Systems team in Santa Clara County recently partnered with the county's Youth Advisory Council in getting the county's Board of Supervisors to help continue supporting youth instead of placing them in jail. This included the Board of Supervisors committing to supporting the education of youth who are involved in the justice system. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors made its pledge public with a resolution and also proclaimed January 2023 as “Disrupting School-to-Prison” Month.

Among other things, the Board of Supervisors resolution states the board members will: 

  • Commit to exploring approaches to better understand the academic outcomes of justice-involved youth and develop goals regarding these outcomes; 
  • Urge all Santa Clara County districts to partner with the county and its education office in supporting justice-involved youth with programs for students and trainings for staff; and
  • Support students' social-emotional needs, acknowledge traumas they may have experienced, and center healing while avoiding stigmatization or bias against youth who have been involved with the justice system.

"The Board of Supervisors resolution is an important step forward in Santa Clara County," Hernandez said. "It formally declares a population of youth often ignored as a priority and was driven by students with lived-experience who were involved in the juvenile justice system. We are incredibly proud to have been a part of this effort in close collaboration with community leaders and youth."