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?"

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