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 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.


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