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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The twenty-year-old started acting up around age eleven when his mother, Roslynn DeCuir, divorced his stepfather. Senegal's mom had left his drug-addicted father when the boy was just one year old, and DeCuir had raised him in various parts of East and West Oakland. A strict woman who runs a catering company, DeCuir was determined to keep her son away from trouble. "I told him at five years old, 'You're either going to a four-year school or you're going to the military,'" she recalled during a recent interview at the Oakland Police Department's Eastmont Substation. "'There's no third choice.'"

But after her divorce from his stepfather and during her subsequent remarriage, Senegal began making trouble at school. He was the class clown, talking over the teacher and disrupting class. Soon, he was failing, and getting suspended for fighting. DeCuir knew her son wouldn't respect the authority of his new stepfather. So on the advice of a friend, she turned to Oakland Police Lieutenant Jim Meeks, who was then commander of the Juvenile Services Division and head of its successful mentoring program.

With DeCuir's permission, Meeks locked Senegal into a holding cell in the juvenile division. After a while, Meeks sat down next to Senegal and asked him how he felt. "I had fear," recalled the tall, clean-cut young man, who wore jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt, and spotless white tennis shoes during a recent interview. "I don't see myself in prison."

Meeks hooked Senegal up with a pastor as his mentor, but the boy was still rebellious and refused to listen. When it was clear the relationship wasn't working out, Meeks took him on his own. The commander kept a watchful eye on Senegal. He stopped by the boy's school, drove by his house, and eventually invited him into his home, where Senegal became close friends with Meeks' son. He often spent the night, and started going to church with the family every Sunday.

One day, Meeks took Senegal to a funeral home. "We sat next to a coffin," recalled Meeks, who told Senegal to "'look at that man and put your face on him.' That was it. He realized that's what I was talking about." Though the mentoring program dissolved after Meeks was transferred from the department in 2000, the police officer continued to play a prominent role in Senegal's life.

Today, Senegal is working full time at FedEx and living with his mother. He plans to attend community college in Santa Barbara in January to play basketball. His ultimate goal is to become a sports agent, but he also has ambitions to open a nightclub, a barbershop, and a teen recreation center. "Lieutenant Meeks made me want to do a lot of things," he said.

Meeks knew all too well the importance of young people — especially young black men — having positive role models. He too grew up without a father, but he was guided under the wing of Oakland Mayor-elect Ron Dellums, his playground director at Lafayette Elementary. Dellums taught Meeks and the other boys everything from how to play sports and the value of education to the importance of chewing your food correctly and how to treat women. "He would have all the boys would go into the rec center and for one hour a day he would talk to us about values," Meeks said. "I never had a father figure in my house. He helped me get there. That's why I know mentoring works, because it worked for me."

Despite the drop in the population of juvenile hall, some youth activists, such as former executive director David Muhammad of the Mentoring Center, believe it is still overcrowded and that too many kids are being held for nonserious offenses like shoplifting or grand theft auto. Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, believes that California's juvenile arrest rate is among the lowest recorded since 1960 precisely because fewer kids are being detained. "As we're incarcerating fewer kids, the youth rate is plummeting," he said. "Kids are committing less crime, but it's not because we're incarcerating more of them."

Others, like Golde, think the system isn't punitive enough. But almost everyone on both sides of the debate agrees that the current system isn't working, and that what's necessary is a more rehabilitative approach.

Hope may be on the horizon. Although Fenton maintains that juvenile hall isn't the proper place for rehabilitation, he still believes that rehabilitation services are important. His department's new juvenile hall will offer even more such services, especially in the area of mental health. The Probation Department also contracts out more than $4 million a year to community-based organizations to provide services to at-risk youth, according to Deputy Chief of Juvenile Services Deborah Swanson.

Meanwhile in Oakland, Wiley is working to reopen the city's juvenile intake desk, and hopes to have it fully operational in January. The new desk would be staffed with five officers, four civilians, and a dedicated supervisor. Wiley hopes the move will reinvigorate the department to handle the juvenile crisis by training officers on juvenile matters and providing resources. "We're going to be encouraging our officers to have more interaction with young people, and if Johnny is going down the wrong road, how we can intervene now before Johnny actually crosses that threshold and becomes a criminal," he said.


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