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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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.

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