House of the Setting Sun 

Teenagers mounted strong opposition to the County's new juvenile hall. If only they were right.

Seventy Bay Area high school students huddled anxiously in the small parking lot outside the state Board of Corrections building on a recent afternoon. There was a lanky green-haired boy with four silver rings in his right ear; a purple-haired girl in sagging, beige corduroys; a slight girl with thick, round dreadlocks in a black-and-white baseball jersey; and several hip-hop kids with gold-capped teeth. They'd traveled all the way to Sacramento from Oakland to share with state officials their view on one of America's most divisive juvenile-justice debates.

The kids oppose the expansion of Alameda County's juvenile-detention facility. They argue that larger juvenile halls encourage cops to lock up more kids on lighter charges. They say the expansion is just the latest example of a juvenile-justice philosophy that condemns troubled kids to lives behind bars rather than rehabilitating them. "They just want to lock us up -- that's it, rather than help us," said Emil Dupont, a goateed 16-year-old with cornrows, gold-capped teeth, and a gold Mickey Mouse earring who tugged on a cigarette. "There's no rehabilitation. All I learned there was how to be a better criminal."

Last October, three of Alameda County's five supervisors voted to build one of the biggest juvenile halls in the country relative to local population. While counties of similar size and demographics get by with fewer than 150 beds, the new juvenile hall in Dublin will boast 420 beds, a 40-percent expansion over the 1950s-era San Leandro facility it will replace.

The teenage lobbyists have vowed to stop the new facility. But on this Thursday morning, instead of addressing the Board of Corrections, the kids had to settle for a meeting with about a dozen police in tan uniforms, who informed them they wouldn't be allowed in the building. The kids made a few speeches, waved colorful posters, and chanted "Derail the Superjail" several times before making their way across town to the capitol, where they tried their luck with state legislators. After all, they complained, officials in Alameda County wouldn't listen.

Nearly 6,000 kids a year filter through Alameda County's juvenile hall, which detains reckless youth until the courts sort out how to handle them. And the aging facility can no longer keep up with the flow. But when county officials made their initial, somewhat hasty decision a year ago to nearly double the size of the hall, youth-advocacy leaders around the bay gasped and closed ranks.

Books Not Bars, a juvenile-justice advocacy group, began the opposition early in 2001. Dozens of groups from unions to churches joined in, but most of the stir has come from high-school students. They meet for rallies that feature poets, hip-hoppers, and break-dancers. They chant, pump their fists, wave posters, and fill the county supervisors' downtown Oakland meeting room whenever business related to the hall is discussed.

The campaign's biggest victory came last May when about 70 kids sponsored by Books Not Bars and the local Youth Force Coalition flew to San Diego and helped persuade a state board to withhold $20 million in grant funds for the expansion. Opponents also teamed up with residents and business owners near the hall's future home, who threatened litigation if the county did not prove it had explored every option before settling on Dublin. And after filling county meeting rooms with chanting youth for six months, opponents helped convince the Board of Supervisors to downsize the hall last October from 540 to 420 beds.

The desire to uplift young people sits at the heart of the juvenile-resistance movement. "What's happening in Alameda County is really unprecedented," said Lenore Anderson, a San Francisco-based lawyer working with Books Not Bars. "It's been getting attention from juvenile-justice advocates across the country who are just floored that we're having as much success as we are."

But as impressive as its organizational and political accomplishments are, the Books-Not-Bars crowd has oversimplified the issue into a battle between compassion and callousness. Critics reject the notion that county officials are driven by compassion for juvenile offenders when they argue that a larger hall will provide a better environment for kids who are detained. Instead, they call expansion supporters cold, corrupt, or misled. For instance, Rachel Jackson, leader of Books Not Bars, said county administrators' approach to troubled kids is to "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker faced the worst of the taunting when she decided to side with the pro-expansion group late in the debate. Protesters chanted in the hallway outside her downtown Oakland office, distributed fliers with the word "liar" pasted in bold print across her face, and clogged her office for several days with thousands of faxes and hundreds of e-mail messages with the same exact message calling for her to change her vote.

In fact, both sides in the battle agree that incarceration should be a last resort and that detained kids tend to be hardened by the ordeal and before long end up back in the system. Juvenile-hall opponents argue that, with enough will, the county can fashion solutions that provide rehabilitation. But as the county's financial struggles promise little in the near term for detention alternatives such as group homes or mentoring programs, the need for more space at the juvenile hall won't lessen soon.

County Supervisor Gail Steele hopes all the beds won't be needed, but noted that without proper alternatives the need for expansion won't simply disappear. Steele, whose downtown Oakland office is scattered with plaques lauding her lifelong dedication to helping troubled kids, has never wavered in her support of the expansion. "A lot of people want me to gamble," said Steele, who ran a youth-mentoring center for more than a decade before taking the county job. "But I have too much experience to risk not having enough space."

The supervisor notes that last year at the hall an average of 76 kids a day were assigned to placement in group homes that had no space to take them. "If you got 60, 70 kids out of the hall who are awaiting placement, you'd have a much lower count," she said. "But if in the last 30 years we have not accomplished enough programs to help kids to not go in this direction, why would I take a chance on building a facility that I know will be overcrowded the day I open it?"

The first reports of overcrowding at the hall came 10 years ago, and the problem has only worsened. Last year, the sewer backed up, kids brawled in crowded hallways, and administrators had to put mattresses on the floor to accommodate an average of 27 detainees over capacity a day.

Admissions to the hall actually have decreased over the last 10 years. The crowding is due partly to heavier juvenile-court caseloads, which forces kids to spend more time at the hall as they await their turn before the judge. Detainees stayed an average of 24 days in 2000, one week longer than was typical in 1990. Tougher laws have prompted more complex trials and clogged up the juvenile courts' dockets. Two new laws are particularly responsible: the 1994 "Three Strikes'' law, which stepped up punishment of repeat offenders, and the 2000 juvenile-crime initiative Proposition 21, which made it easier to try kids as adults.

California already locks up a higher percentage of its youth than any other state in the country -- nearly 200 more per 100,000 kids than the national average, according to the Urban Institute. Still, over the last five years, the state has laid the groundwork for significant new growth in its juvenile-detention capacity. Since 1997, the state handed out grants worth nearly half a billion dollars for 68 new construction projects. Two-thirds of the state's counties will use the money to expand juvenile-detention capacity by half, to just less than 10,000 beds.

"We incarcerate kids way out of proportion to what other states do," said Keith Steinhart, director of the juvenile justice program at Commonweal, a Bolinas-based research institute. "And we're embarking on a building program to build new juvenile-detention capacity that will blow the top off of the chart that we're already at the top of."

Alameda will use its chunk of the pie, more than $30 million, to help defray part of the new hall's nearly $200 million cost. The money was allotted for the sole purpose of renovating California's juvenile facilities, and the county cannot divert the funds into mentoring programs, as critics would like. The new hall, plus five juvenile courtrooms and administrative offices, will fill half of a 50-acre plot alongside the Santa Rita jail and women's jail in Dublin. Construction will begin in 2003.

The current facility, 50 years old and perched on steep terrain between two sections of the Hayward fault, has needed replacement for years. The county decided in late 2000 to get started on the project and hired the Atlanta-based architecture firm Rosser International to predict how big the new hall should be to handle population growth until 2050. A study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency subsequently revealed that the Rosser report relied on faulty arrest data for kids who had turned 18. Council researcher Madeline Wordes called it "a major error" that caused the firm to drastically overestimate how big the new hall should be. But the contention by critics that the firm intentionally inflated its estimate so that it could make more money from construction of the hall overlooks the fact that Rosser's contract with the county involves only planning and not construction of the facility.

Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, a leading advocate for expansion, said cops think about a kid's danger to society and not the hall's capacity when determining whether to detain someone. "They don't go out after lineup and say 'Hey they got 200 beds out there, let's fill 'em up tonight,' " Plummer said. "It doesn't work like that. You take them to the hall if they can't get hold of the parents. They take them there if they're violent and if the deed they did may continue."

Plummer linked the crowding to nastier kids, and he called opponents "naive." He scoffed at the suggestion that kids are readily awaiting the opportunity to give up their bad behavior and pick up books if only they were encouraged. "Most people in this country have no idea how violent our young people are," he said. "They're violent as hell."

County data, however, shows that violent crime among youths dropped by one third over the last decade. "Any assertion that juvenile crime and violence has gotten so bad in Alameda that we need a new facility to contain it is nonsense," said juvenile-justice expert Steinhart. The call for expansion instead should be explained by examining detention practices, he said.

Opponents argue that one reason for overcrowding is that kids are sometimes brought in on light charges that don't merit detention, such as probation violations or drug possession. Last year, 10 percent of the kids in the hall were in for probation violations, including failing to check in with an officer or failing a drug test. Officials say that if kids are locked up after small offenses it's because they are repeat offenders.

Teenage lobbyist Emil Dupont is one such offender. Last year Emil spent four months in the San Leandro hall after leading police on a high-speed Halloween night chase down East Oakland's 14th Street in a stolen car, a deed he calls an "economic crime." Emil also has visited the hall before on cocaine charges.

Emil, who joined protests at a couple of county board meetings and even set up an appointment to talk to Supervisor Lai-Bitker to explain his side, sees the expansion as part of a racist conspiracy. In Alameda County, while blacks account for less than 15 percent of the total population, more than 50 percent of the kids in the hall are black. "Most of the people being locked up right now are young black males like myself," said Dupont, an East Oakland resident who wants to be a lawyer or a politician when he grows up. "So it's our lives that they're talking about, not just numbers, not just beds, but people's lives."

But Supervisor Steele, whose son spent two weeks in the hall as a teenager for stealing a roll of quarters, said time in the hall is good for some kids. Her son had fallen in with the wrong crowd, she said, and his time in the hall probably scared him straight. Today he is a respectable father and janitor, she said. "Sometimes a little tough love isn't the worst thing that ever happened," she said. "He certainly made a decision he was never going back."

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