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.

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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.

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