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Getting inside the Department of Juvenile Justice

Juvenile offenders at EastLake (Central) Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, from the film, “Juvies.”
Juvenile offenders at EastLake (Central) Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, from the film, “Juvies.”

Michael Minor is chief deputy secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It’s his job to help shape the future for this department that’s potentially on the budget chopping block. KALW’s Holly Kernan spoke with Minor about what the role of the Division of Juvenile Justice.

MICHAEL MINOR: The Division of Juvenile Justice currently provides services to, as you said, about a thousand young men and 31 young women who are the most troubled youth in California. They are the most serious, violent offenders and also sex offenders. So the population that we are providing services to are young men and young women who have gone through the county system, who need further services, and those services are best provided at this time by the Division of Juvenile Justice.

HOLLY KERNAN: And do you consider these young people a threat to public safety?

MINOR: I believe these young people are troubled youth who have some serious and violent crimes that need a great deal of treatment and rehabilitation services to prepare them to go back into the community so that they won't make those same mistakes and create victims or commit additional crimes.

KERNAN: So let's assume I'm a young man, I'm 19 years old, I'm in for felony assault.... What does my day look like?

MINOR: If they're not a high school graduate, they should be involved in school – or either if they're a high school graduate, they should be involved in vocational programs. As an example in the 2010-2011 academic year, we graduated over 556 young men and women. They either received the GED, or high school diploma, or a certificate of vocational or technical trade. Also we are implementing a large array of treatment groups. It may be, if you are a sex offender, you may be involved in sex behavior treatment program groups. If they identify that you have high violence, you may be included in the anger-interruption therapy group, or you may be in Counterpoint. Those are some of the groups that we offer, and then other groups are just life skills or other pro-social activities that will help build character and help the young people get ready to go back into our communities.

KERNAN: Now one highly publicized case of treatment inside of the Division of Juvenile Justice was the revelation that kids were being educated in cages because they were seen as a threat to public safety of the teachers. Is that still happening?

MINOR: No. Several years back there were some of the most violent young men who were being housed in, what was called at the time, the Special Management Program. In there were individual education booths. They were identified and they would be put in the booths and the teacher would sit outside and provide education in that manner to keep the young men from becoming violent, involved in violence. Those no longer exist; those booths no longer exist. Now what we do, we have a behavior treatment program that's for the most difficult young people. It has a cap of 24 young people, can be in that housing, that living unit, and there's four teachers for each of those five youths, so you'll have five young men in a classroom and you would have one youth correctional counselor and one teacher in that classroom to deliver services in that manner, so the picture that you may have seen some years ago, where a young man, some young men were sitting in booths, no, that's not the case any longer.

KERNAN: And you say that it's basically the most violent and troubled offenders who are still in DJJ – everybody else is gone back to counties and back to programs, etc. So one of the other big allegations about what was formerly the CYA, the California Youth Authority, was that it was essentially a school for gladiators – that it was a place where these kids were preyed upon and that it was a very, very dangerous place to be. How have you remedied that?

MINOR: Our housing units now are occupied on a core program which is a general population living unit; the max is 38 young people. On our sex behavior treatment program there are 36. On our mental health programs, there are 24 young people; that in itself helped alleviate some of the pressure around that. And to couple with that, we've hired professional staff that make up the treatment teams. Those treatment teams are made up of clinical psychologists, youth correctional counselors, case work specialists or case managers, and you have the supervisors and the treatment team program managers there to help facilitate the treatment process, so everything is done now as multidisciplinary approach to providing treatments. It focuses on creating a pro-social behavior that's therapeutic, that's supportive, and to help young people identify what their problems are – help them look for solutions to their problems, their behavior, and I think those things have made a tremendous impact.

KERNAN: And one of the things that James Bell said in the interview that you heard that you wanted to respond to was that he didn't think any young people needed to be in DJJ.  He thought that communities that they came from could provide those services to help kids who are struggling.

MINOR: Again, DJJ has always believed in supporting the youth with support from their families. We have reached out to families as part of the treatment process. The counties have a great deal of responsibility. If these young men and women can do better in the counties, the counties can do a better job of helping them get back on their feet, I'm not opposed to that, but I do again just have to repeat that the state system, the Division of Juvenile Justice, at this time currently does have a place, and our place is to do the best job we can in rehabilitating and helping these young people.

KERNAN: And you've worked in corrections for 27 years; you just recently took over as Director of the Division of Juvenile Justice. How have you seen the correctional system in California, particularly with respect to young people, evolve? I mean it was just a few years ago that the CA Department of Justice put "rehabilitation" back into its actual name.

MINOR: Well, it never changed for the Division of Juvenile Justice. I mean, when it was the California Youth Authority, when I came into the organization, it was known as the national leader, and it was looked upon, looked to for creative ideas around treatment and rehabilitation. And over the years policy changes have made a difference in the way that we have done business. I mean, we went from reatment-oriented facilities to one that was more custody and controlled. And now we're moving back, we're shifting back to that area where we realize that locking them up and throwing away the key is not the answer – that these young people need lots of treatment, they need lots of support, in order to leave our facilities and go out and be productive citizens, and that's what we're focused on.

KERNAN: Governor Brown has proposed to shut down the DJJ altogether. Where do you stand on that?

MINOR: If that decision is made, then our job is to do the best plan we can to help transition young folks back to the communities. But, in the interim, I see our role as doing the best job we can to provide services for the young people we have in our care. So my focus as the director –and my constant message to the staff – is we can't take our eyes off the ball. We have to remain committed to the job that we are tasked to do. We are public servants. We have a great task ahead of us. We have a very needy population and that's where our focus is. If that policy decision is made, then we'll work closely with the counties to make that transition as transparent and effective as possible.

Crosscurrents CDCR
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.