Legislation that is now on the governor's desk is a long-overdue attempt to reform the state's disastrous juvenile justice system is broken beyond repair. The measure, Senate Bill 81, turns over responsibility for all but the most violent juvenile offenders to their home counties. While that's a wise move, the counties will have to rethink the ways they handle teen offenders.
In the juvenile correctional facilities run by the California Youth Authority, gangs run the show, violence is omnipresent and newcomers rightly fear rape. Congressional investigations have highlighted sexual abuse by officials and the excessive use of force all the way up the chain of command. Teachers wear body armor to classes; not surprisingly, little teaching gets done. Medical staff is scarce; at the El Paso de Robles facility in Paso Robles (San Louis Obispo County), there is only 1 psychiatrist for 750 youngsters, 91 of whom had already attempted suicide. On days when there's no school, youths are locked in their cells for 23 hours. Small wonder, then, that San Francisco has refused to send any juvenile offenders to the state-operated institutions.
In county lock-ups, as well as state facilities, overcrowding is the root of the problem. Overcrowding undermines programs that promise rehabilitation. It generates youth-on-youth violence that shifts staff energy from therapy to monitoring and punishing. County-run facilities aren't as bad as places such as El Paso de Robles. But those institutions don't address youths' problems either, and too often they turn out hardened delinquents. A failing county system feeds into the grim reality of the Youth Authority, and from there a straight line leads to the penitentiary.
How should San Francisco respond to the challenge of SB81? For starters, more money should be supplied to its Department of Children, Youth and Their Families for sports and education initiatives that can combat the allure of gangs and drugs in high-crime areas. Getting through to teens before they commit crimes is priority one.
Those who commit minor offenses should be kept out of the system. Putting fewer kids in lockup means more resources for those who will benefit most. The Community Assessment and Referral Center, a San Francisco nonprofit, refers misdemeanor offenders to community service and therapy, rather than placing them in a secure detention center. The Detention Diversion and Advocacy Program, run by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, pulls felony offenders out of secure detention and puts them back in their homes. Together with their parents, they receive counseling; compulsory after-school activities create an intimate and supportive community. The evidence suggests those who participate in this program are considerably less likely to commit future crimes than those who remain in the juvenile-justice system.
There's much to be learned from experience elsewhere. In Texas, the Giddings School rehabilitates violent offenders by using intensive behavioral therapies. Giddings makes juveniles explore the "thinking errors" that rationalize delinquent behavior. Just 20 percent of those who leave Giddings return to the prison system - remarkable by the standards of juvenile justice. At the "Last Chance Ranch" in Florida, teenage offenders complete 18 months of academic education and ranch labor before being gradually returned to their communities. They can earn a high school equivalency degree; and, despite the fact that many of these offenders have committed violent crimes, the recidivism rate is well below the Florida average. The nonprofit that runs the ranch has chapters in 30 states, but none in California; this is one Florida innovation that should be imported.
Finally, San Francisco should adopt a "wraparound" approach to handling juveniles. In such a system, counselors determine what services are needed. Relatives and relevant community members aid and monitor progress. Service networks provide everything from substance-abuse therapy to transportation to school, and mobile teams respond to crises. For lesser offenders and those re-entering society, it patches up the cracks in their lives that they originally fell through. The wraparound has worked well in Milwaukee, and it ought to be tried here.
Reforming the juvenile-justice system is not just a moral imperative. It can also save the taxpayers a bundle of money. The Last Chance Ranch costs about half as much per ward as the California Youth Authority's facilities. Much more money is saved because just half as many youths wind up in prison. What's more, the fact that many of them become productive citizens benefits them - and the rest of us as well.
This article was originally posted on SF Gate.