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What’s working in juvenile justice

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Rina Palta
Downtown Watsonville in Santa Cruz County, a facility known for innovations in juvenile justice

A note to readers and listeners: only the first names of children are used in this story.

Christian is 15 years old. And like many teenagers, he’s made some mistakes. “Kinda stupid stuff,” he says. “Like vandalism. Not necessarily graffiti or anything. But yeah. Vandalism.”

And he got caught.

“It’s funny, one little incident can change everybody’s opinion of you,” Christian says. “Like, everybody. At school, like the teachers, from the students, to your family and stuff. But I try not to look at it as a negative or anything.”

Christian was put on juvenile probation, which is pretty standard for kids who break the law. What’s weird about his case is that when he violated that probation, Christian didn’t really get punished. In a different county in California, like Los Angeles or neighboring Monterey, he might have been locked up or at least taken back to court. But in Santa Cruz, he wasn’t. Instead, Christian was sent to the Evening Center in Watsonville.

Staying at a typical juvenile hall means sleeping there, eating there, going to classes with other locked-up kids. At the Evening Center, kids check in every afternoon from 4pm to 8pm – the toughest hours of the day for a kid trying to stay out of trouble. At the end of the day, though, they go home to their families.

Probation, by its nature, is a balance of punishment and help, law enforcement, and social services.

“We lean more towards the social service side, so that’s what our department’s value is,” says Yolanda Perez-Logan, the director of the Evening Center. Locking kids up might be the easier way to do things, Perez-Logan says, but it’s not the best way. Studies show that incarceration, even for one night, is linked to higher recidivism in children.“So teaching them to stay there and be connected to the community and engaged is the best thing we can do. And I don’t want to sound Santa Cruz-y but I guess I will be – you get into this job to help people,” she says.

What’s really interesting about Santa Cruz’s juvenile probation system is that it wasn’t always so "Santa Cruz-y." Change started with the Latino community taking an interest in juvenile hall. Let’s go back to the late 1980s and early ‘90s in Santa Cruz County, when things looked a lot different around here. In a seven-year period, felony arrests of Latino youth rose 85 percent.

“There wasn’t enough beds to hold the juvenile population,” says Watsonville Mayor Daniel Dodge. “The facility was over capacity at that time. And the majority of kids being detained were kids of color,” says Raquel Mariscal of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

At the same time juvenile hall was filling up, the state was offering grants for renovating juvenile facilities.

“But there was a condition. Monies would be provided for renovations if facilities would add beds.” recalls Mariscal. “So it was a confluence of, they want to apply for these monies, and the old adage of “if you build it, they will come.” And the Latino community was convinced that if these extra beds were added, that it was going to be brown kids that would be housed at the facility.”

On one hand, a county is battling a crime wave. On the other hand, the community is concerned that people of color are entering the justice system at high rates. What do you do?

The county had a large Latino population back in the 80s and 90s, but there weren’t any Latino elected officials in the county. Then came the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

After the earthquake, Latino immigrants became much more involved in local politics.

“That all started from that focal point where the ground shook and the buildings fell down,” says Dodge. “It was more the symbolic, it was more like a whole way of life fell and a new way of life was allowed to blossom.”

Dodge, an organizer at the time, took on the issue of Latino kids in lock-up.

And, says Mariscal, “ultimately, there was a compromise made – that yes, we will support the application for this grant, but you, probation department, have to agree to intentionally address the over-representation of Latinos in the detention facility.”

The probation department did address the over-representation of minorities, but it never built that new facility. The county didn’t need it.

The county’s juvenile hall sits in Felton, in the Santa Cruz hills, about 20 miles and a two-hour bus ride from Watsonville. Fernando Giraldo is the director of juvenile probation for the county. He says the population in the hall is about half what it was 10 years ago – and that’s a good thing.

“There’s plenty of evidence that shows that the experience of detention is a higher risk factor for future recidivism, more so than gang involvement or being arrested with a loaded firearm,” Giraldo says.

So the department’s policy is to keep kids out of the hall when at all possible. How to actually do that is a practice they’ve developed over time. The key, Giraldo says, was self-examination. And that’s because probation officers have a lot of discretion.

“Let’s say two teens, a Latino and an Anglo come into custody at 10 o’clock at night for an offense that, through our objective risk instrument, we determine they are releasable,” Giraldo says. And say there’s no one on duty who speaks Spanish, and the Latino kid’s parents are working in the field, so they’re hard to reach.

“Easy to find the parent who speaks English, call the parent and say, ‘Come pick your kid up,’” Giraldo says. “If you don’t have the capacity – bilingual bicultural staff – and that staff may say, ‘I have to wait until tomorrow afternoon when our next Spanish-speaking person comes in.’ And so we hold that youth in custody.”

To avoid this scenario, the county instituted a strict policy for who stays in custody and who doesn’t. It also hired more Spanish-speaking staff and started a number of new programs that serve as alternatives to locking kids up.

“We get kids coming in here to Santa Cruz and they’ve had experiences in other counties and they’re shocked,” Giraldo says. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to do that to me? You’re not going to lock me up?’ No, no.”

Now, crime is down across the county. And Santa Cruz has become an emblem, a model site for how to safely reduce reliance on incarceration.

But will other California counties follow?

“They are alone in their exceptionalism,” says James Bell of the Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco. “People go and visit and say, ‘Yeah, that’s nice but we’re not going to do that.’”

Bell helped Santa Cruz and 45 other jurisdictions throughout the country change their approach to juvenile justice. But Santa Cruz, he says, is just different.

“Santa Cruz has a fundamental cultural belief that a child sitting in detention is a child that’s wasting their lives and that their job is to get them out of their system as quickly as possible. Most people think – even though their systems are horrible – most people think us having our grip on you is making your life better,” he says.

Bell says other places in the state, with large, difficult juvenile halls will look to Santa Cruz and say that their own kids are different, tougher, less likely to change. But Bell says he sees a similar issue in all of the overcrowded juvenile halls he’s visited – they’re filling their beds with non-serious, non-violent offenders:

“I defy anybody to take a population snapshot and tell me that probation violations, bench warrants, placement failures, administrative things will not be at least 40-45 percent, if not 50 percent of that population. I defy anybody. Murderers, robbers, rapists, those things that we feel are really bad kids that we want to be protected from, will probably be 15-20 percent of that population.

Bell says nothing will change in these jurisdictions until the people demand it, just as in Santa Cruz.”

Kids still commit crime in Santa Cruz County. There’s still a gang problem. But the probation department is willing to bet that the less these kids interact with the judicial system, the more likely they are to turn their lives around.

Like Alejandro, a teenage boy in the department’s youth soccer league.  “I started hanging out with the wrong people, the wrong crowd,” he says. “I don’t know, I started getting into gangs and it became part of me, you know.”

Alejandro was a Norteño gang member. Now he’s a member of the probation department’s unofficial soccer team, run by Officer Gina Castañeda. Castañeda says these kids are at formative ages – they’re looking for an identity.

“The kids identify themselves as soccer players and stop identifying themselves as probationers or gang members,” she says.

The team has kids from rival gangs, who wouldn’t get along on the street.

“They walked in with their Dickies, Ben Davids, their Nike Cortez, their crease down shirts, their black belts hanging down,” she says. “And then they put on their soccer shirts, and you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Castañeda says, like being a good parent, being a good probation department takes a lot of confidence, self-criticism, and a willingness to listen. That’s something places like Orange and Ventura counties will have to consider. They, like many other places, are looking to Santa Cruz for a new approach to steering kids away from a lifetime of crime.

Rina Palta reports on criminal justice for KALW News. Through stories of those affected by the system, she hopes to bring insight to an often misunderstood, polarizing, and politicized issue. Rina came to KALW from a print background, having worked in magazines for a number of years before being pulled into broadcast while earning a masters degree at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. Along with KALW, her work has been published in Mother Jones magazine, the San Francisco Weekly, and Hyphen magazine. Rina edits and writes for KALW's criminal justice blog, The Informant, where you can find news and analysis on all aspects of California's criminal justice world.