© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

What should be done with youth prisons? Interview with James Bell

Burns Institute Executive Director James Bell
Burns Institute Executive Director James Bell

Juvenile crime in California has been steadily declining for several decades, reaching an all-time low in 2010. What hasn’t changed much, however, is the disproportionate number of youth of color who are being incarcerated.

This is the focus of organizations like the W. Haywood Burns Institute. The San Francisco-based nonprofit has been working for years to help counties remake their juvenile justice systems so they’re equitable. It’s going to become more and more important as California begins to phase out its statewide youth prison system in favor of county alternatives.

It’s a controversial proposal from Governor Jerry Brown, and one that’s likely to be implemented by 2014. KALW News Director Holly Kernan sat down with Burns Institute Founder and Executive Director James Bell to talk about the closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice.

HOLLY KERNAN: California Youth Authority (CYA) is now the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Give us a little snap shot of who is in the DJJ and what is the day in a life like?

JAMES BELL: Currently, there are between 1,000 and 1,130 young people and they are supposed to be those children with serious emotional problems or such serious offenses that being brought back to the camps or ranches of the local counties is not considered to be viable option for them. And their days are 23 hours in, depending upon the facility.

KERNAN: Wait, so they are locked-up 23 hours a day?

BELL: Some portion of those young people are definitely locked-up 23 hours a day. Others are in dormitory settings. They are separated in a variety of categories, I believe enhance violence: north-south, blue-red, those kinds of categories.

KERNAN: So, the same like Saint Quentin, for example.

BELL: Absolutely. And if you go, you wouldn't really see a huge difference in terms of what about their usefulness makes these places different. And so, the one thing you can say is, for those young people that have serious mental heath issues, they will be in a continuous program for a significant period of time. So, there is a consistency there. But that's about all that you can say about it. And no one that believes that it should exist in its current fashion thinks that it should exist because it's so great. They are just concerned about what the option is for bringing these young people back home. Even the proponents of DJJ are not saying that we are proponents because you are really destroying a great program. They are just saying...

KERNAN: We don't know what else to do...

BELL: ... and this way we know they are safe.

KERNAN: So, hypothetically let's say you are in charge of the DJJ. What would you do?

BELL: I would start to realign and try to figure out a way to have same kind of programming in communities close to home.

KERNAN: And realignment is what we are doing with the adult prison system which is sending most offenders back to the local level.

BELL: You can call it devolution, you can call it “back home.” I mean, however you want to phrase it, do that! But I would do that very systematically. I would want to get demographic profile of all the young people that are there. Which counties are sending us the most young people? And what is that these young people present with that we need to deal with?

KERNAN: The DJJ has shrunk quite a lot in the last few years. From 10,000 in 1997 to about 1,000 now.

BELL: Built for 6,000, running at 10,000, so tremendously overcrowded back in those days.

KERNAN: Yes, and extremely criticized. What were the big criticisms?

BELL: The criticisms were that there was no treatment or services. It basically was...

KERNAN: School for gladiators.

BELL: Yes. The whole point of juvenile justice system is to make sure that we do some habilitation and some rehabilitation, so that you won't go on to be an adult chronic offender. You are supposed to be there to be getting needs addressed that you have expressed as a juvenile, as a young person. Essentially, this was the place where it was guards in a pod, hundreds of young people in dorms, and if anything happens the guards would throw tear gas left, throw tear gas right, and call for backup or the SWAT team. So, you would have to declare a gang affiliation to be protected. It was just horrible! There was no real interactive model between the young people and the people that were supposed to be serving them. So it just became custody and control. And as we know, there were beatings, there were deaths. There were absurd instances where kids with special education needs were supposed to get education but the facilities people thought they were too dangerous. So your classroom was just cage! Literally, you can imagine the absurdity that has to happen when you are non-interactive and you go to custody and control. That's what it was.

KERNAN: Now the call is to shut down the DJJ altogether. Why is that happening now do you think?

BELL: There have been calls to shut down these facilities for many, many years. And the reasons were what we've just talked about: Treatment wasn't right, it was extremely expensive for that kind of treatment. Recidivism rates were crazy – between 60-70% range. It was like, why are we doing this? But those arguments had no salience because of fear, the way politicians frame public safety... it just got no traction. Literally, the state's fiscal crisis is the reason because folks are looking at why shouldn't we do something differently. Now in fairness, the populations were going down and I believe that's because the locals were beginning to see that sending their young people away to the Youth Authority as it was then, wasn't productive, wasn't helpful. And so there is a movement out there in the youth justice field to look at rational policies, to become less anecdotal, more based on data and objective screens and probation violation grids and those kinds of things. That resulted in less counties sending their people anyway. And you could really see a north-south split. Southern California being the one that are most sending, and northern California sending least.

KERNAN: Sending fewer people to CYA?

BELL: Yes, sending fewer people to CYA. And so…

KERNAN: So that sort of gave it a sense that we don’t need this.

BELL: That’s right. The CYA was also unaffordable in its current construction. So once it’s like, we cannot afford these recidivism rates and this expense at the state level where the county is bearing very little to no expense – we cannot afford this.

KERNAN: So is there a danger here? A lot of people are advocates of shutting down the Division of Juvenile Justice. Is there a danger that young kids are going to be sent to adult prison?

BELL: There’s always danger. There’s always unintended consequences. I think it’s important for those questions to be in the forefront and for people to keep an eye on what’s happening. This is not an all win-win situation. We all know that oftentimes, justice policy is determined by local department heads. So, whether you, for example, sent young people to the adult system with Proposition 21 or any of those things is a decision made by the head prosecutor in those counties. I believe that if we do bring them home, it is incumbent for people to say: We are watching you, prosecutor, to see if you are going to now send our young people into the adult system, and what is the rationale for doing that. Because, public safety is not a rationale when you have expense and a recidivism rate like we have in California. It’s not working. So this whole notion of “tough on crime” – it’s up to the local people in that community to raise this issue of, why are we sending them to the adult court? What are we getting for that? Are we just getting retribution and a pound of flesh? Is that what you’re saying as the DA? Well, we live in the communities these people are coming from, and we’re not saying that’s what we want. So advocacy will always be required. We must always be vigilant all of the time when it comes to social justice.

KERNAN: So, according to the Violence Policy Center, Alameda County has one of the highest youth homicide rates in the state second only to Monterey County. What are you seeing being done in places like Oakland to deal with kids killing other kids?

BELL: My sense is that in terms of Oakland, I feel that they are hamstrung. There’s a new police chief… This has been a neighborhood that has had youth homicide at an alarming rate for a long while.

KERNAN: You’re talking about east Oakland?

BELL: I’m talking about the City of Oakland. My sense is that they are at a quandary about what to do. I don’t think there are any magic bullets or answers, but one thing I do know is that you have to engage the young people that are participating in these acts themselves in their communities in beginning to solve these problems. Unfortunately, Oakland has not been able to get past suppression in order to get to intervention and engagement. Because the urge for suppression from the citizens is powerful.

KERNAN: So what do you mean when you say that?

BELL: I mean that the theme is suppress. We have the 100 blocks that Mayor Quan has talked about, and there’s this notion of, we can’t intervene until we get it under control. Meaning suppress the crime, do what it takes for suppression.

KERNAN: When you talk to people living in those neighborhoods that is sometimes what they are saying too…

BELL: Who wants to be in an unsafe neighborhood? It’s absolutely true. But, what I’m saying is that the two have to live together. You can’t suppress, you can’t arrest, you can’t “public service announcement” your way out of these kinds of issues that have violence at these rates. You have to intervene and engage people who are a part of this issue.

KERNAN: Isn’t that what Measure Y has done with the cease fire project and with putting outreach workers on the street at midnight? Isn’t that what they’re trying to do?

BELL: That’s a start. Absolutely. But clearly, it needs much more scale.

KERNAN: What do you think does work in terms of violence prevention? And can you point to some concrete examples.

BELL: I think it’s very hard. But, when it’s framed as “violence prevention” as opposed to “neighborhood well-being,” then I think we have set ourselves up to fail because violence is a by-product of hurt people hurting people. So what we need to do is in a real way invest in those communities. And, actually, those are the communities that are first cut and so you can’t prevent violence in the context of a larger deprivation of neighborhoods and societies, which they can see. And so to me, you have to engage that. So that’s right, take those eight blocks, take those 10 blocks, and get people what they need in terms of services. That, I believe, is the best violence prevention. Hard to do, it takes courage, and it takes investment.

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.