The Unmaking of a Justice System 

Juvenile arrests and detentions are down across the entire state. But don't assume that's because youth crime has been reduced.

By the late 1980s, Alameda County's 299-bed juvenile hall was structurally and functionally antiquated. Built in 1953, atop portions of the Hayward Fault, there were concerns about the San Leandro facility's seismic safety. Institutions of that era also weren't designed to accommodate the programs and services subsequently developed to treat young offenders. Momentum to build a new juvenile hall grew when a 1997 California Board of Corrections report described the facility as "inadequate and insufficient." Eventually, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a new 540-bed facility across from Dublin's Santa Rita jail. Then youth-justice activists got wind of the proposal.

The activists objected to the location of the proposed facility and also to its enlargement. Organizers and youths from Books Not Bars and the Youth Force Coalition stormed meetings of the county Board of Supervisors and the California Board of Corrections, waving posters, staging a sit-in, and chanting slogans such as "Schools, Not Jails" and "Derail the Superjail." They condemned the proposal as a racist policy of "lock 'em up and throw away the key," and cited statistics showing that California already locked up a higher percentage of its youth than any other state in the country. They also noted that Dublin's distance from Oakland, home to a disproportionate share of the youths detained at juvenile hall, would make it difficult or impossible for many families to visit their children.

The most compelling argument against enlarging the facility was the assertion that juvenile crime was going down. "Juvenile crime was clearly ... on decline," said Books Not Bars campaign director Jakada "J" Imani. "But there was this idea that there will be more youth of color at some point, and therefore you need bigger juvenile halls and not bigger schools." A 2002 report issued by several activist groups pointed to a steady statewide decline in youth arrest rates between 1994 and 1998. "This expansion is being driven not by a tide of youth crime, but by punitive policy decisions," the report said.

The activists' campaign paid off. After first agreeing to build a slightly smaller facility in Dublin, the Board of Supervisors relented on both points in 2003, agreeing to build a hall little larger than the current facility at the existing site in San Leandro. Construction is currently under way, and the new hall is expected to be completed next April.

Three years later, juvenile arrest rates tell a story, but it may not be one of decreased juvenile crime.

Last July, police in Oakland abandoned their longtime method of processing juveniles — resulting in fewer arrests, reduced intervention services, and a generally unengaged attitude toward youth crime. Generally speaking, juvenile offenders aren't being rehabilitated or punished.

Not surprisingly, crime is on the rise. There has been an overall increase in juvenile violence, according to Oakland Police spokesman Roland Holmgren. And prosecutors say most adult criminals have juvenile histories.

As of November 13, the number of homicides in Oakland was 132, the highest number in ten years. According to the city's crime analysis unit, at least 25 victims were juveniles, the youngest of whom was only fourteen years old. In a September report, the Alameda County Public Health Department noted that fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds have the second-highest homicide rate in Oakland after twenty- to 24-year-olds. Murders also have spiked in other Bay Area cities such as Richmond and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the number of reported robberies and burglaries has been steadily increasing since 2000, except for a dip in 2004. Robberies increased from 1,929 in 2000 to 2,338 as of October 25, while burglaries jumped from 3,506 to 6,349 in the same period. "We used to rarely see a case where a juvenile would commit a robbery against an adult," said Matt Golde, who runs the juvenile division of the Alameda District Attorney's office. "That was a little bit alarming. ... That now is sport; it's every day." The vast majority of these robberies are by juveniles, Oakland Police Lieutenant Kevin Wiley noted: "Juvenile crime has always been off the hook, but it's more off the hook."

Yet just as youth crime appears to be growing more severe, the Alameda County Probation Department has slashed the number of kids it is holding in juvenile hall — typically detaining only the worst offenders. Meanwhile, all across California, counties have drastically reduced the number of juvenile offenders they are sending to the eight youth prisons run by the Division of Juvenile Justice.

While it is not clear why these changes are occurring simultaneously, a combination of demographic changes, new attitudes toward institutionalization, loss of faith in the juvenile prison system, and budget problems within law enforcement have contributed to a worsening of youth crime just as government agencies are dedicating fewer resources to the problem.


Youth incarceration rates began declining some time in the past 25 years. According to a July report from San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, California's juvenile incarceration rate fell by nearly 50 percent between 1980 and 2004. Today, commitments to state youth correctional facilities are at their lowest absolute levels in 47 years, even though the state's youth population more than doubled during this same period. In 1959, the system's average daily population was 4,279. The number peaked in 1996, with nearly 10,000 kids in prison. But as of June 2006, the number had dwindled to 2,910.

Nearly every major county in the state is referring fewer youths to the Division of Juvenile Justice, including Alameda County — which referred 113 youths per 100,000 between 1993 and 1995 but only 34 per 100,000 between 2002 and 2004. Contra Costa County commitments dropped from 94 per 100,000 to 27 per 100,000.

In 2003, a lawsuit detailing illegal and inhumane conditions inside California's juvenile prison system touched off a wave of scrutiny and criticism of the Division of Juvenile Justice — then known as the California Youth Authority. The suit resulted in the state agreeing in 2004 to improve its facilities' educational resources, medical care, treatment of sexual behavior, and accommodations of prisoners with disabilities. The state also agreed to reduce institutional violence.

In 2004, state Senator Gloria Romero released a videotape that showed a prison counselor of the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility near Stockton repeatedly punching and using Mace on a ward on the ground, and other counselors beating and using pepper spray on another. The incident resulted in the firing of six employees. Five other wards in the custody of the Division of Juvenile Justice have died in the past two years.

In light of all the bad publicity, the number of kids sent to prison has dropped dramatically. "The public and media attention has led judges and DAs to send less kids," said Ben Wyskida, communications director for the Ella Baker Center, which runs Books Not Bars. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in early 2004 to stop sending kids into the system unless required to do so by law. Meanwhile, the state imposed a moratorium on sending kids to the Chaderjian facility.

Last month, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a law that requires the state to provide juvenile detainees with adequate facilities, staff, and programs for treatment. Wyskida would like to see California's punitive youth prisons replaced by smaller, rehabilitative, community-based facilities, such as those operated by the state of Missouri, which cost only one-eighth as much per ward as California's facilities and boast an impressive 16 percent recidivism rate, compared to California's 75 percent. San Francisco is looking into such a model. "The state recognizes the whole thing isn't working," Wyskida said.

Meanwhile, Alameda County's Probation Department is purposefully reducing the number of kids detained in juvenile hall. As recently as four years ago, the hall was routinely exceeding its capacity of 299. "We were actually sleeping kids on stacks of bunks in day rooms," Juvenile Hall Superintendent Ron Johnson recalled. "The department realized that we really need to look at who we are detaining in our juvenile hall."

That inquiry yielded new criteria for detaining youths in the hall. Today, decisions on whether to keep or release suspected youth offenders before their court date are based on a variety of factors, including the severity of their crimes, previous criminal history, and probation status. The new guidelines swiftly reduced the hall's population. Today, it holds just 170 — a significant reduction over just four years ago and less than half the volume the new facility is being built to accommodate. This reduction in population also had an effect upon the number of kids sent to the Division of Juvenile Justice.

"Our push is just not to accept any kid, because if you look at research, you're more likely to make a low-risk kid a criminal by putting them in a facility," said Bill Fenton, deputy chief for Alameda County Juvenile Facilities. Kids sent home without being detained are typically those who live with their parents, go to school, don't have a serious delinquent history, and haven't committed a serious offense. "The punitive approach doesn't work. It's been proven that it doesn't work." About 10 to 15 percent of the kids brought to the hall are not booked, according to Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins.

Serious crimes, such as murder, rape, and armed robbery, are cause for automatic detention. But a kid arrested for a violent misdemeanor offense who had a prior conviction of a similar offense would not be detained under the guidelines. Nor would a kid who was arrested for felony theft of property, weapons, or cars, and also was a truant, a gang member, a first offender at age thirteen or younger, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the arrest.

Some critics believe this new policy is compromising public safety. "The minors in this county aren't locked up," complained assistant DA Golde. "If they are not locked up, they're going to victimize someone else. I don't think society should take the risk. ... You cannot tell me that that kid being on probation, dealing drugs, not in school — you can't tell me that every single one of those guys should go home. How is that helping the community? ... Whatever happened to person-to-person contact and judgment? Sift out the bad seeds from the good ones. Law is a human institution."

There are situations in which probation officers can override the guidelines to detain or release a minor. For example, Fenton said, a kid arrested for felony sale of drugs, currently on probation, and with a previous conviction for selling drugs, would meet the detention criteria. But if the kid is attending school regularly and the parents are willing to take him or her home, the probation department could send the kid home and have the parent sign an affidavit assuring that the child will appear in court.

But the push to detain only the worst offenders may be having unintended consequences by keeping kids from coming into contact with alternative programs until they've already committed one or more serious crimes. "The system really promotes deterioration, because until you deteriorate, you don't get the services you need," Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele said. "The problem is we have kids committing crime after crime until they end up in Santa Rita. ... We have kids falling through the cracks like mad. ... The last thing you want to do is lock up a kid. But when a kid is totally out of control and thumbing their nose to everyone, somebody needs to stop them."

Youth advocates also agree that the current system merely encourages kids to cycle in and out of juvenile hall until they reach the adult system. Olis Simmons, executive director of the East Oakland teen center Youth Uprising, said "suppression" and a lack of education and job skills contribute to the institutionalization of kids.

Fenton is a proponent of rehabilitation, but he doesn't believe that juvenile hall is the best place for rehabilitation to occur because the average stay there is only 22 to 26 days. "Juvenile hall is not designed ... for a therapeutic milieu for the children," he said. "You can't do a lot with a child that you don't have much time with."

Golde disagrees. "You might have people saying juvenile hall is bad," he said. "If you have bad incarceration, that's going to be true, but it could be a healthy component. I do see kids go in there, get scared shitless, and never come back."

Fenton said the department has lost a hundred juvenile and adult probation officers due to budget cuts in recent years. Detaining fewer kids in juvenile hall and relying more on electronic monitoring or home supervision also yields financial benefits for the economically strapped county. The last time probation calculated the costs, in 2000 to 2001, the cost of detaining a kid in juvenile hall was $156.51 a day, compared to just $17.09 a day for home supervision, and $22.41 a day for electronic monitoring. Blevins said a new GPS device that will replace electronic monitoring sometime in the next year will cost only $5 a day.

Fenton believes that keeping kids in the community is better than placing them in the hall, as long as it doesn't compromise public safety. In addition, he said ankle monitoring and home placement provide greater levels of supervision. But Golde and others believe those methods may not be as effective as being detained in juvenile hall. "If you take out the punishment aspect, they don't understand the gravity of what they're doing," Golde said. "You need to sit in this hall and understand this."

While detention isn't necessary for all youth offenders, some kids do respond to it. One such person is a seventeen-year-old Berkeley girl who was receiving treatment at Thunder Road, a chemical treatment center for juveniles in Oakland. She was taken to the hall in January after failing a drug test, the result of a DUI. "After jail for a month and a half, I learned my lesson," said the girl, who agreed to be interviewed if she could remain anonymous. "It made me cherish my life. The beds were hard. The food was nasty. People didn't have boundaries or guidance. I drove down the wrong road."


While the Probation Department is choosing to detain only the highest-risk offenders, budget pressures in Oakland are preventing the city's juvenile offenders — who make up half the population of juvenile hall — from ever entering the system in the first place.

For more than forty years, the police department's juvenile intake desk was the focal point for officers dealing with juvenile matters. But in July 2005, Police Chief Wayne Tucker closed the desk for budgetary reasons, motivated in part because it already didn't have much of a staff left.

At one point, the juvenile intake desk employed as many as sixty officers and civilians, and had an annual budget of about $1 million, according to Lieutenant Jim Meeks, commander of the Juvenile Services Division from 1996 to 2000. The desk was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and an estimated two thousand juveniles a year were brought there to be photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed. Officers had access to juveniles' files and histories and would record what schools they went to and where they hung out. Their parents were called, and often brought in.

The desk was the front line in the always-challenging relationship between police and young offenders. With access to case files and juvenile experts, field officers had help deciding what was best for the kids they picked up. Not every kid was taken straight to juvenile hall. If an offense was minor, a child might be released back to his or her parents. Moderately serious offenses might result in a notice to appear in court. More serious offenses led to juvenile hall.

But when the intake desk was eliminated, all juvenile case files were thrown away except for arrest and crime reports, which meant officers could no longer track the disposition of youths not sent to juvenile hall. "A lot of the kids that we're stopping now who are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, have no history," said Lieutenant Wiley, who heads the Youth and Family Services Section and was involved with the desk on and off for ten years. "We don't know anything about them." Officers do have access to the probation department's record system, which logs juvenile arrest and crime reports, but to do so they have to return to a station or call dispatch, which is likely backed up with other calls. That's time officers don't have, especially in light of staffing shortages which has resulted in constant pressure to respond to 911 calls.

The loss of Oakland's intake desk has resulted in far less police engagement with juveniles. "We're not talking to kids as we used to," Wiley said. Today, he said, officers typically do "all or nothing," either releasing kids if an offense is minor, or dropping them off at juvenile hall and basically washing their hands of the incident.

"If you look at our gang problem in Oakland, overwhelmingly they're juveniles," Wiley said. "They are victims of what we failed to do in a lot of ways. There's a whole other reason why they're gang members, but we may have been able to get involved and least identify them beforehand and tie them into a service. We lost that opportunity when we decided to close the intake desk, and we weren't staffing it adequate like it should have been. We set ourselves up for failure."

After the desk's closure, reported juvenile arrests fell by more than 50 percent, according to Debbie Fallehy, who handles uniform crime reports for the Oakland Police Department. In May 2005, reported juvenile arrests and citations numbered 107. That number fell to just four in October 2005, and has never since exceeded 47. Fallehy said the number is likely inaccurate because some crime and arrest reports don't make it back her way from juvenile hall. More notices to appear in court are being issued, Wiley said, but because of the desk's closure the police have no way of keeping track of them.

"It appears that we're sending every kid that we arrest straight out to juvenile hall without there being any other alternatives — no intervention or diversion," Wiley said. "And we don't have statistical information to prove that we're not doing that. I can tell you by talking to patrol officers, if it's not that serious, they're just letting that kid go. ... We're not going to have the school officers establish rapport with some of these kids. ... We no longer have juvenile issues as part of the fabric of the police department. ... A first-time offender needs to be connected to a program. That doesn't exist right now. We leave these kids out to fend for themselves."

Many officers dislike dealing with juveniles because of the detailed paperwork involved in such arrests. The whole process can take an officer off the street for several hours. "Closing the desk made it worse," Wiley said. "If it's simple battery, two kids duking it out, or a minor theft, or a kid that's in a stolen car, or a kid that may be detained for a possible burglary ... they're just letting this kid go. If they're not going to get the bang for the buck in this case, they're going to move on to the next caper."

Perhaps the most important aspect of the juvenile desk was its ability to recommend alternatives to detention, the main one being Donald P. McCullum Youth Court in Oakland. Since 1994, the program, which is designed for first-time offenders, has taken a "restorative justice" approach, de-emphasizing punishment and focusing instead on taking responsibility. Juveniles are heard and sentenced by their peers in a mock court trial, and their records are kept clean. Mandatory sentencing includes participation in a mock trial, conflict-resolution workshops, and possibly community service, paying restitution, writing an essay or letter of apology, or anger-management classes.

Cases that would have been diverted to McCullum Youth Court now go to the county probation department. While probation now refers cases to the program, Youth Court executive director Rachel Sing said the time lapse makes her program less effective. "For interventions like ours, the sooner we get the kid, the better," she said. "With probation it can be between one and four months." By that time, she said, some kids have not only forgotten their crime but moved on to the next one.

Sing believes a variety of factors — such as the influence of poor parenting, pop culture, diminished resources for counseling, and sentencing laws that allow sixteen-year-olds to be tried as adults — are contributing to younger and younger offenders. About two years ago, she said, the kids coming to Youth Court started getting younger, and the crimes more violent. Only about 10 percent of the youths were then in middle school, but that number has since jumped to more than a third. "We're getting a much tougher population that's had a lot more prior police contact but not an arrest," she said.

Public pressure has reduced the number of kids placed in long-term detention, but Sing said alternatives to incarceration were never properly funded. "There weren't enough resources pumped into communities to address the fact that they weren't putting kids in that system," she said. "You have tons of kids falling through the cracks, where there is no intervention provided and their behavior is a cry out for help."


Fransua Senegal was kept out of trouble as a teenager thanks in part to the kind of program that now gets little attention in Oakland.

The twenty-year-old started acting up around age eleven when his mother, Roslynn DeCuir, divorced his stepfather. Senegal's mom had left his drug-addicted father when the boy was just one year old, and DeCuir had raised him in various parts of East and West Oakland. A strict woman who runs a catering company, DeCuir was determined to keep her son away from trouble. "I told him at five years old, 'You're either going to a four-year school or you're going to the military,'" she recalled during a recent interview at the Oakland Police Department's Eastmont Substation. "'There's no third choice.'"

But after her divorce from his stepfather and during her subsequent remarriage, Senegal began making trouble at school. He was the class clown, talking over the teacher and disrupting class. Soon, he was failing, and getting suspended for fighting. DeCuir knew her son wouldn't respect the authority of his new stepfather. So on the advice of a friend, she turned to Oakland Police Lieutenant Jim Meeks, who was then commander of the Juvenile Services Division and head of its successful mentoring program.

With DeCuir's permission, Meeks locked Senegal into a holding cell in the juvenile division. After a while, Meeks sat down next to Senegal and asked him how he felt. "I had fear," recalled the tall, clean-cut young man, who wore jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt, and spotless white tennis shoes during a recent interview. "I don't see myself in prison."

Meeks hooked Senegal up with a pastor as his mentor, but the boy was still rebellious and refused to listen. When it was clear the relationship wasn't working out, Meeks took him on his own. The commander kept a watchful eye on Senegal. He stopped by the boy's school, drove by his house, and eventually invited him into his home, where Senegal became close friends with Meeks' son. He often spent the night, and started going to church with the family every Sunday.

One day, Meeks took Senegal to a funeral home. "We sat next to a coffin," recalled Meeks, who told Senegal to "'look at that man and put your face on him.' That was it. He realized that's what I was talking about." Though the mentoring program dissolved after Meeks was transferred from the department in 2000, the police officer continued to play a prominent role in Senegal's life.

Today, Senegal is working full time at FedEx and living with his mother. He plans to attend community college in Santa Barbara in January to play basketball. His ultimate goal is to become a sports agent, but he also has ambitions to open a nightclub, a barbershop, and a teen recreation center. "Lieutenant Meeks made me want to do a lot of things," he said.

Meeks knew all too well the importance of young people — especially young black men — having positive role models. He too grew up without a father, but he was guided under the wing of Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums, his playground director at Lafayette Elementary. Dellums taught Meeks and the other boys everything from how to play sports and the value of education to the importance of chewing your food correctly and how to treat women. "He would have all the boys would go into the rec center and for one hour a day he would talk to us about values," Meeks said. "I never had a father figure in my house. He helped me get there. That's why I know mentoring works, because it worked for me."


Despite the drop in the population of juvenile hall, some youth activists, such as former executive director David Muhammad of the Mentoring Center, believe it is still overcrowded and that too many kids are being held for nonserious offenses like shoplifting or grand theft auto. Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, believes that California's juvenile arrest rate is among the lowest recorded since 1960 precisely because fewer kids are being detained. "As we're incarcerating fewer kids, the youth rate is plummeting," he said. "Kids are committing less crime, but it's not because we're incarcerating more of them."

Others, like Golde, think the system isn't punitive enough. But almost everyone on both sides of the debate agrees that the current system isn't working, and that what's necessary is a more rehabilitative approach.

Hope may be on the horizon. Although Fenton maintains that juvenile hall isn't the proper place for rehabilitation, he still believes that rehabilitation services are important. His department's new juvenile hall will offer even more such services, especially in the area of mental health. The Probation Department also contracts out more than $4 million a year to community-based organizations to provide services to at-risk youth, according to Deputy Chief of Juvenile Services Deborah Swanson.

Meanwhile in Oakland, Wiley is working to reopen the city's juvenile intake desk, and hopes to have it fully operational in January. The new desk would be staffed with five officers, four civilians, and a dedicated supervisor. Wiley hopes the move will reinvigorate the department to handle the juvenile crisis by training officers on juvenile matters and providing resources. "We're going to be encouraging our officers to have more interaction with young people, and if Johnny is going down the wrong road, how we can intervene now before Johnny actually crosses that threshold and becomes a criminal," he said.

The police department's efforts will be boosted by funds from Oakland's Measure Y, the Violence and Public Safety Act of 2004, which is allocating millions of dollars to violence-prevention programs. That, too, could have positive implications for the typically contentious relationship between police and young people. "Getting officers ... out of police cars into communities, connected to communities, and building relationships with young people so there's trust between them would make a difference over time," Youth Uprising's Simmons said.

Wiley believes that tying kids to appropriate programs is the way to keep them from slipping into a life of crime. "All our efforts in the past have been getting them after they've done something wrong," he said. "What we don't want to do is avoid the criminal justice system by saying this kid committed a robbery, it's the first one, let's not deal with it. Because we know that doesn't work, they're just going to keep going back. We have to get to them before they start committing the crimes."

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