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Hall of Blame

Juvenile Hall
Christopher Gardner

Gates of Hall: Visitors can't miss the entrance to Santa Clara County's Juvenile Hall, whose 329 beds are increasingly filled with kids convicted of violent crimes.

Despite a proven track record of failure, the latest political bandwagon suggests incarcerating more kids, more often

By Laura Stuchinsky

Hector Chavez smiles shyly as he shakes a visitor's hand. Soft-spoken and sturdily built, the 15-year-old sports a buzz cut and three freckle-sized tattoos on his left cheek. Along with several on his knuckles, they'll be removed soon.

Chavez grew up on San Jose's streets. He was 3 when his mother died and he was placed in the county's Children's Shelter, a 90-bed facility then located in east San Jose. Chavez's memories about his mother remain hazy. He doesn't know how she died, for example. His father is in jail; Hector has never met him. After four years in what's euphemistically referred to as protective custody, when he was 7, he ran away from the shelter and hooked up with a local gang.

By the time he was 8, Chavez was supporting himself by selling drugs. By 9, he'd learned how to hot-wire cars. He vandalized a school, robbed beer from a store, threatened a group-home counselor with a broken glass and participated in gang rumbles. When he was caught, he was often thrown into juvenile hall.

But the punishment didn't have the hoped-for rehabilitative effect.

"For fun," Chavez says that kids at the hall make shanks--knifelike weapons--out of scrounged pieces of metal. They use the weapons for protection or revenge. Chavez says the teachers at Juvenile Hall are afraid of their students, for good reason. One was hit over the head with a weight stolen from the exercise room; another was stabbed. ("There are some kids who are psycho in there," Chavez explains). When he was 11, Chavez and several fellow gang members organized a new gang at the hall. They tried to start a riot but were unsuccessful. Mostly, Chavez says, kids learn new methods of killing people.

"I just learned how to kill someone with a newspaper," he shares somewhat dispassionately. "You shove the whole thing down someone's throat."

Putting troubled, impressionable youths in an environment where such lessons are more common than lectures on history might seem ill-advised. Nevertheless, many pro-incarceration advocates think putting more kids behind bars is the best way to deal with California's rising rate of violent youth crime, a phenomenon expected to surge as a demographic tidal wave of teens--the children of the Baby Boom generation--comes of age in the next decade.

Arguing that California's juvenile justice system is "dangerously lenient," Wilson, in his State of the State speech earlier this year, proposed increasing the capacity of local and state juvenile correctional facilities. He also wants to make it easier for the district attorney to bump teenagers who commit violent crimes up to adult court. Both proposals will be taken up by the state Legislature later this month, along with more than 70 other juvenile justice reform bills aimed at cracking down on kids and crime.

Mark Buller, assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County, thinks the governor is right. If violent offenders like Chavez were moved out of Juvenile Hall and more beds were added, he reasons, there would be more room to lock up nonviolent offenders and, as a result, stem the rising rates of violent crime.

According to data compiled by Santa Clara County's Center for Urban Analysis, Santa Clara County arrests more of its kids than a majority of the state's other counties. In 1994, nearly one in 10 youths in the county--14,400--were arrested, the vast majority for misdemeanors: crimes such as assault and battery, petty theft and public drunkenness.

Only 28 percent of the county's juvenile arrests were for felonies--the most serious offenses, which include violent crimes, sex offenses and many drug and property violations. In contrast, other similar-sized counties have concentrated their efforts on more serious crimes. For example, felonies constituted 45 percent of Sacramento County's juvenile arrests that year, 41 percent in San Bernardino County, and 34 percent in Alameda County.

The reason why Santa Clara County arrests more kids for misdemeanors is that the county is "very prevention-oriented," says Assistant District Attorney Buller. The thinking is, if you catch kids when they're stealing candy, you can prevent them from moving up to car stereos. "First-time offenders, you've really got to sit on them," he asserts, lamenting that it has become increasingly difficult with limited resources.

In years past, the county would simply throw repeat offenders into Juvenile Hall along with those who had committed serious crimes. But in the last several years, the hall's 329 beds frequently have been filled to capacity. And years of social-service cuts have left few alternatives. There are only a handful of group homes in the county remaining; the only residential drug treatment program for youths was eliminated in 1990, and county mental health services have fallen victim to severe budget cuts.

The county used to toss truants into Juvenile Hall for the weekend to "inspire" them to attend school, Buller reminisces. Now, he says, "we don't have that tool available to us." These days, he continues, "burglars sometimes are sent home. They don't do anything [in terms of jail time]. What does that tell you? It tells you that [crime is] okay."

"There's no accountability," concurs Tom Edwards, presiding judge of Santa Clara County's Juvenile Court. A kid might laugh and flip the finger to the officer who arrested him while the officer's still writing up his report as the youngster strolls out of court, Edwards relates.

"I think we need to double Juvenile Hall's capacity," he continues. "Not to lock them up and throw away the key, but to give them some sense of consequence."

But youth advocates and criminal justice experts argue that there is no concrete evidence that increased incarceration rates will do any good.

"Everyone thinks we should lock them up, but we don't know if it works," counters Louis Zarate, business agent for the county's Probation Department union. "We don't have a way of measuring results," he continues. "We're just doing it [this way] because this is they way it's been done."

Santa Clara County, like most counties in the state, doesn't keep track of its recidivism rate--how many youths are rearrested after being incarcerated--one concrete measure of the system's effectiveness. The information is available in the county's computerized records, explains one county employee, but no one has been told to write a computer program to extract the numbers. In criminal justice circles, "recidivism is like the F-word," says the employee, who asked to remain anonymous. It's a concrete measure against which the system, and those who run it, can be measured, he explains. "Everyone wants to steer away from it."

"It's critical for our system to get together and decide, Is this working?" says Zarate. "Right now we don't know how to apply our coercive authority. I think this is central to our whole justice system. If it doesn't work and we punish [kids], then we're punishing them for punishment's sake."

Others cringe at the long-term picture.

"We're setting kids up to go to state prison," charges Jim Leininger, a San Jose criminal attorney who has long specialized in juvenile law.

"When I walk into court and some judge or stupid-ass district attorney wants to talk about the burglary, it makes my ears twitch. I'm afraid we're not looking at the real situation--why they're acting out these problems. Kids aren't born aggressive or angry."

"The idea that going to Juvenile Hall is going to turn around a kid's life comes from people who haven't spent a night in Juvenile Hall," agrees criminologist Barry Krisberg. "Deep-end kids are being beaten by their parents and ridiculed at school. Give me a break. A night in Juvenile Hall isn't going to make a difference in this kid's life."

Chavez says the time he served in Juvenile Hall did nothing to soothe the anger and pain that has churned inside him since he was 3 years old. What made the difference, he says, was participating in the New Image Leadership Academy, a program run by a former felon, Pastor Sonny Lara, under the auspices of the Mexican-American Community Services Agency. For several months, Chavez has been delivered to the agency's community center in north San Jose every morning, where he studies high school subjects, takes classes in anger management and goal setting, works out in the weight room with Lara, and participates in a job training program. At night he goes back to the hall. Chavez is the third of three former gang members to go through the program.

Lara commends the county for taking the risk to release Chavez to the agency's program. There are a number of caring, committed counselors and probation officers who work at juvenile hall, but they're woefully understaffed, Lara says. "There's no way when you have 20 or 30 other guys yelling for you--there's no way kids are going to get the attention they need."

And it's not just inside juvenile hall that kids are starving for attention. Gail Ortega, a longtime activist in the African American community who has worked at several social-service agencies as a youth advocate, argues that instead of arresting kids for minor crimes, the county should invest its money in programs that prevent kids from getting into trouble.

"I see a lot of kids with a lot less supervision and a lot less activities for them," he says. Parents are working long hours to make ends meet, he continues. After-school programs have been cut. Jobs for teens have all but disappeared. "Then we blame the kids because they don't act right with unsupervised time."

The problem is particularly acute for minority kids, Ortega points out, who typically come from lower-income families, poorer school districts and communities that often have few job opportunities. Not surprisingly, they're also incarcerated at higher rates.

According to Probation Department records, 78 percent of those admitted to Juvenile Hall between July and December of 1995 were kids of color. Yet according to the 1990 census, they constitute only 40 percent of those under 17 in the county.

"If we don't fill their schedule," agrees Angel Rios, associate director of the Mexican-American Community Service Agency, "there's a lot of dealers and gangsters that'll say, 'If they don't want you, I'll take you.' "

The county has weathered several years of state budget cuts, and next year it is facing another $31 million shortfall as a result of federal cutbacks. But as far as Krisberg is concerned, it's simply a matter of priorities.

"We need to put the [criminal justice] system on a diet and shift that money to prevention," he says. He believes that the county could cut its criminal-justice budget by 10 percent without compromising public safety, while creating a pool of money for prevention programs. In fiscal 1993, the county spent 89 percent of its discretionary funds on criminal justice--excluding law enforcement, which is largely paid for by cities.

"People like myself have to beg, borrow and steal in order to get money for the programs I do, while money for prison beds seems to fall out of the sky," complains youth advocate Jeff Herd, who is organizing a midnight basketball league for young people in the county. "If we want to get rid of gangs, give [teens] jobs and some training so they can make money," he says.

Initially, Assistant District Attorney Mark Buller defends the county's prevention efforts, saying that the county is not only doing a lot, but also has stepped up its efforts. But as the interview wears on, Buller's frustrations rise to the surface. He expresses many of the same concerns voiced by the critics.

"We aren't doing a lot of front-end prevention," Buller says. "There's no question there's a need for more programs, a need for more prevention and intervention activities."

In a state juvenile correctional facility in Missouri, teddy bears sit on many of the beds in the 40-bed dorm room. Vases filled with flowers brighten a common living space. Fish dart back and forth in a huge aquarium.

Fifteen years ago, Missouri began to move away from the large institutional reform-school model still employed by California's Youth Authority in favor of a number of regional, 30-40 bed facilities. But the biggest change, says Mark Steward, director of Missouri's Division of Youth Services, is that the Missouri Youth Service began to emphasize treatment rather than punishment.

"Thank God we got out of that mode of getting in kids' faces and trying to scare them into being good citizens," Steward says. "It wasn't helping kids."

In the old system, Steward says, kids were told to "keep their mouths shut and their noses clean." Now, he says, the agency is more interested in getting at the underlying causes of a youth's antisocial behavior.

Juvenile offenders are held accountable for their actions by being remanded to the youth authority, but they're surrounded by a variety of counseling services inside the facility and out in the community once they're released. Working in tandem with community-based organizations, the state provides counseling for the youth and their family, drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and jobs.

"If we can't find 'em a job, we'll give 'em a job," Steward says.

Almost every youth is assigned a college student 10 to 12 hours a week as a Big Brother/Big Sister.

The difference, Steward says, is dramatic.

"The state facilities used to be hellholes," he says. "They were violent." Now, he says, one can feel and see the difference.

According to Krisberg, who helped design Missouri's new system, far fewer of those who graduate from Missouri's Division of Youth Services are reincarcerated compared to states with similar juvenile justice systems.

"It's almost like the more responsibility we give them, the more they earn our trust, the better they do," Steward says. "It's not being soft on crime, it's being smart."

Santa Clara County's juvenile justice system has cracked open the door to some community-based organizations who would love to see Missouri's model replicated locally. But the numbers are minuscule compared to the need.

For example, on the urging of the probation officer's union, the county is testing a pilot program developed in Orange County that targets kids who are likely to become repeat offenders. They've contracted with a local nonprofit organization to provide a package of counseling services to 120 kids and their parents. The results of their efforts will be measured.

But activists say that many in the system resist the small steps the county has taken. They worry that if Wilson's "lock 'em up" strategy is approved by the Legislature, and other politicians take up the war cry, the county will snap closed its doors and resume vacuuming kids off the streets.

"I don't think people are thinking systematically in this county," Zarate says. "I really do think that the system wants to do the right thing, [but] we've got politics in this whole thing. We respond to the anger of the public."

"It is time for people in the community to speak out on behalf of kids and families," agrees youth advocate Gail Ortega. "Because we're stifling the potential of a lot of kids, and those kids don't even know it."

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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