Detention Redemption: In One California County, Progressive Leaders and Law-Enforcement Officials Are Transforming a Troubled Juvenile-Justice System

By Townsend, Peggy | The American Prospect, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Detention Redemption: In One California County, Progressive Leaders and Law-Enforcement Officials Are Transforming a Troubled Juvenile-Justice System


Townsend, Peggy, The American Prospect


SANTA CRUZ COUNTY'S JUVENILE hall sits on a pine- and oak-studded hillside across from a state park. It is a low-slung building made of concrete block with doors painted a bilious shade of green.

From outside, it hardly looks like a national model for juvenile-justice reform. But inside, empty cells stand as testament to what has happened over the last eight years. Instead of locking young criminals behind bars, this mostly liberal seaside community has bucked the national trend and is sending all but the worst offenders into alternative corrections programs. Led by a band of reformers and embraced by a community that was one of the few in California to vote against a get-tough-on-crime initiative in 2000, the county is keeping kids at home, supervising them closely, and enrolling them in community-based programs that provide drug counseling and job training. Data is assembled to see who is coming into the system and why they are there, and the time it takes to get a youngster into a group facility has been more than halved. Notably, this progress has occurred in a state known injustice circles as the "Great Detainer," because some 25 percent of all detained youth nationally are held here.

The result is that juvenile hall is half empty most days, youth felony arrests are down 48 percent, and officials say that instead of spending money on building new cells, they are putting it into programs that work. "The fact is," says Scott MacDonald, one of the reform effort's architects, "our outcomes have been excellent."

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY SITS 70 MILES south of San Francisco. Its northern half is home to the University of California, Santa Cruz and tourist-filled beaches; its south is mostly Latino and agricultural, with long rows of strawberries pushing up against housing developments. And although the county is known for its liberal bent--Santa Cruz city-council members once held a medical-marijuana giveaway on the steps of City Hall--it faced many of the youth crime problems other California counties did in the mid-1990s.

Santa Cruz's 42-bed juvenile hall routinely held 50 to 60 teenagers, and failed even minimum health and safety standards. Kids were doubled up in the tiny cells, remembers Judy Cox, an easygoing woman who was an early engineer of the reform movement and is now the county's chief probation officer. "We had them sleeping on the floors," she says. "Their heads were right next to the toilets." It was a struggle just to get the young inmates showered and fed. Tensions were high, fights were common, and injuries to both staff and kids were rising. "We were just dealing with day-to-day survival," Cox says.

County officials and probation staff sought change, but it was like trying to turn an ocean liner. Entrenched ways and lack of money made it hard to do. Then John Rhoads came to head the department in 1997. A former deputy probation chief in Sacramento, Rhoads had been part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation juvenile-justice reform initiative there. "John brought these tools to help our jurisdiction reduce reliance on detention," Cox says. "The first thing we did was to develop an objective screening process at the front door."

That meant that when police brought a young offender in, probation officers would use a set of objective criteria to determine if he or she was a threat to public safety or would skip out on his or her court date. Those at high risk, such as violent offenders and teens with prior arrest records, were locked up. Those deemed "medium risk" were sent home with electronic monitoring, receiving daily visits from probation officers. Those who were picked up for misdemeanors and would likely make court appearances were simply cited and sent home.

But street cops complained that young crooks were beating them back to the neighborhood. They said the county had gone soft on crime. So Rhoads sat down with the county's law-enforcement chiefs and hammered out a list of crimes--like high-speed chases and robbery--and criminal history that should result in bookings and those for which a young offender should simply be cited. …

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