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Hall of Mirrors

Hollowed Halls: Juvenile inmates are required to walk on the painted lines at all times, with their hands kept behind their backs.

The soaring number of kids in prison is a reflection of the current political obsession with getting tough on crime. Never mind that it doesn't work.

By Clarence Cromwell
Photos by George Sakkestad

DAVE WASHINGTON looks like a clean-cut, normal, bright kid. It probably has something to do with his going to Los Gatos High School.

I wouldn't have guessed that Dave (not his real name) had done time in the joint, but he and a buddy got on the Internet about a year and a half ago and discovered a recipe to make pipe bombs. They made two bombs, working in a garage and a back yard, and blew up a couple of mailboxes (one came right off the post, man).

It was adventuresome for a couple of brainy A-students, 15 and 16 years old, and after they blew up the mailboxes, they decided to forget about the bomb-making business.

When Los Gatos police officers arrested the pair on a tip about seven months later, it didn't take an honors graduate to figure out they were in a lot of trouble. Detonating bombs is a felony. But what happened next shocked both of the teens and their parents.

Dave and his pal were locked up in the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall for nine days before they saw a judge. Despite persistent efforts, their parents were unable to bail them out.

When Dave and his friend walked into court, his mother recalls, the first thing the judge told Mrs. Washington was that he didn't intend to let her son go for a long time. That was before hearing Dave's case. And there was no jury, either.

As agitating as this process is to many parents, Dave's case was run by the book.

Thousands of kids pass through the juvenile court each year, and most of the first-time-in-court parents are shocked or angered--maybe they got the wrong idea from watching Perry Mason--to learn that kids don't have the rights guaranteed to adults just down the block at the superior court: juveniles aren't entitled to bail if juvenile hall decides to keep them locked up, and they don't get a jury trial. Some parents complain of being pushed out of the picture when it comes to disciplining their own kids.

Dave had a stroke of luck that day in court. A Los Gatos police officer showed up to ask for leniency, saying it was a request the department had never before made to the juvenile court. Likewise, the district attorney's office asked for light sentences, calling the pipe-bomb incident a boyish prank. In the end, the judge let both defendants off with the nine days they'd served plus 200 hours each of community service, which took Dave 10 months.

The fact that he got off so easy is what makes Dave's case unusual. Most of the kids who appear in juvenile court don't get a clemency plea from the police. They're left to a system that takes away their rights, in the name of protecting children, and then frequently slams them with adult-sized punishment in the name of cracking down on juvenile offenders.

Jail By Any Other Name

MY CRIME-AND-PUNISHMENT education begins when I meet Shirley Cantu, superintendent of Santa Clara County's juvenile hall. This is the first place kids go after the cops pick them up, and the kids stay here until they go to court. This is where some of them serve their sentences.

At any other place, Cantu might appear motherly. She wears a denim jumper over a white blouse, her steel-grayish hair cut in a short, almost businesslike bob. But there's a certain hardness to her appearance today that may emanate from the cinderblock walls all around us or might come from the tremendous ring of keys she thumps down on a table as we begin to talk.

During our brief interview, Cantu explains that her title is part of the outdated verbiage reformers invented when they tried to separate juvenile hall from prison. At the turn of the century, when the idea was to heal wayward kids, it probably didn't seem right to use the word "warden," which is sometimes mistakenly applied to Superintendent Cantu.

Euphemistically, minors get "adjudication" rather than a trial; they get a "disposition" rather than a sentence; the burly overseers at juvenile hall are "counselors," although the word "guard" better describes what they do. These reform-era words fall with Orwellian irony on the ears of outsiders, who believe that they are clearly seeing a jail, complete with guards, young prisoners and steel screens over the windows.

After a while, I realize that it's not Cantu's job to save the kids: She has too many other things to do. Cantu has to shuffle more than 6,000 inmates a year, 329 at a time, through this 1950s-era facility that, by today's standards, should have half as many kids. She also has to meet the state's rigid requirements for conditions inside the hall: two hours of schoolwork (inmates don't have to attend unless they want to, but the classes must be available), and recreational periods that end precisely on the one-hour mark set by state guidelines.

Cantu must see to it that juvenile hall follows state recipes for everything from medical care to the food served in the cafeteria, to the number of inmates locked in each cell. The hall must tend not only to inmates' mental health but also to their dental health.

The outdated facility sometimes requires juvenile hall officials to bend the rules by cramming three inmates into a single cell with only two beds. That's why an expansion project is Cantu's biggest concern right now. A new wing is supposed to be completed in April 1998; a second expansion hasn't yet been funded by county supervisors and is not expected to be completed until after 2000.

When the project is done, the kids locked up here will spend their days in cells as big as the state says cells ought to be.

Tug of Warriors: For one hour a day, youthful inmates are allowed physical activity under close supervision in an aging concrete exercise yard.

Shoe Fits

AFTER EXPLAINING these matters, Cantu leads a couple of reporters and a photographer on a tour of the hall. First, we pass inmates in the corridor, escorted by hefty "counselors." The kids, dressed in hall-issued sweatshirts and what look like pajama bottoms, have to walk with their hands clasped behind their backs when not in their cells, as if handcuffed. Whenever we pass inmates, their guards make them step aside and stand back-to-the-wall until we pass. They're not allowed to talk when out of their cells, so we don't try to speak to them.

Next, Cantu leads us deeper into the prison, through a booking area, visitation rooms and a clinic--all of which have the institutional feel of a high school or a police station--before finally letting us see where the kids are locked up.

In a boys' "dorm" area, 30 kids lounge on bunks in an auditoriumlike low-security unit. This is where they spend most of every day, except for their schoolwork in a room next-door and one hour of exercise outdoors or in the gym. Most of these kids are in for nonviolent offenses such as theft, or for messing up on their probation.

Further along, Cantu offers a peek into a high-security cell block for male inmates. This is basically a hall lined with the wooden doors to 25 cells. Most of them contain a bunk bed, one or two inmates and a tiny wall locker for their possessions. Nothing more.

"Well, this was the state of the art in 1959," Cantu says wryly.

The inmates' shoes line the corridor, two pairs beside almost every door. Shoes aren't allowed in the cells because someone might decide to hang himself with shoelaces, Cantu explains.

I look through the small windowpane in each of 22 doors at the inmates; most lie on their thin mattresses or peer back at us. These cells are reserved for boys accused of violent crimes or serious felony offenses: rape, murder, robbery and others.

But as I look over the kids, I think that if this cell block were emptied onto any high school campus in the county, the laid-back and carefully combed inmates would blend right in to the crowd, except for the one or two with large and visible gangster-type tattoos.

Inside One Cell

KYLE HELFRICH SPENT three months in one of those cells, on a charge he says was blown out of proportion. He and his mom, Robin Helfrich, got a lesson in the idiosyncrasies of the juvenile justice system, and they didn't get lucky like the Washington family.

Kyle's out now. Wearing his own clothes--khaki denim shorts and a gray T-shirt--he's traded the cinderblock walls of his cell for a Los Gatos living room, one with thick camel-colored rugs over the hardwood floor.

Kyle is articulate and rather serious for a 19-year-old; he runs a hand over his buzz-cut or his dark goatee as he contemplates an answer to each of my questions.

Just before his 18th birthday, Kyle was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon, after striking Los Gatos Officer Matt Frisby with his car. He says the charge arose out of confusion surrounding the incident and an incorrect police report: Kyle didn't see the officer, he says, and the police report was incorrect to say the incident happened right under a streetlight because what was there was actually a telephone pole. The officer suffered a knee injury when he landed but managed to arrest Kyle, who had stopped the car to get out and see if the officer was OK.

Police disputed his story and asked that he be tried as an adult. Because his original arrest was for assault on an officer, Kyle was placed in the high-risk wing. Eventually, Kyle was tried as a minor and found guilty on the lesser charge of reckless evasion, he says.

Once locked in the high-risk wing of juvenile hall along with rapists and murderers, however, Kyle was kept there, even after his sentencing.

Like other inmates, Kyle describes life in juvenile hall as extremely regimented and trying. Inmates take their showers, use the bathroom, eat, even brush their teeth at prescribed times. The "counselors" didn't speak to Kyle unless he talked or failed to look straight ahead while in line.

"You leave your room maybe two hours a day," Kyle said. "You don't even get to leave to eat. They just open the door and give you your food."

His mom had to learn the routine, too; once she visited during tooth-brushing time, and Kyle didn't get to brush his teeth that day.

Robin Helfrich wasn't pleased to see her son bunking with inmates who had committed serious felonies. Nevertheless, Kyle became acquainted with accused rapists and murderers at juvenile hall and with a bunkmate who had stabbed his own sister.

"It was an accident, from what he told me," Kyle says, relating the incident with a perfectly straight face.

Weight Game: Juvenile inmates pass their free time much like their counterparts in adult prison.

'It Was Awful'

WITH SO MANY ANGRY young men locked up together, tempers occasionally explode--and they're not always the inmates'.

Occasionally fights break out among inmates, and platoons of guards flood the cell block. Anyone seen swinging fists is dropped to the floor with his arm pinned between his shoulder blades.

But there are other times when the restraining technique is employed to keep the kids respectful, according to Kyle and one other inmate.

"I saw this one guy that was mouthing off to a guard," Kyle said. "They 'restrained' him--forced him on the ground by twisting his arm behind his back. The guy that it happened to was, like, crying and stuff."

Any type of excitement was rare, however, Kyle said. Inmates get used to spending time lounging on their bunks or looking at the world outside the steel-meshed windows.

In fact, the Helfriches learned quickly that this is the biggest way juvenile hall breaks inmates down. Sitting in their cells all day, the kids are cut off from their families and friends: Only parents are allowed to visit and only for 30 minutes a day. A visit from Kyle's friends, his brother or his girlfriend would have been impossible.

Kyle lost 25 pounds while imprisoned. Later he needed oral surgery because his lack of interest in food caused his gums to deteriorate from malnutrition. For his first week in the hall, Kyle was under a suicide watch. Kyle says his mom got him through the week, making appointments to visit just about every day he was locked up.

"She said, 'You have to get through it. You have to stay strong, and everything will be fine, eventually,' " Kyle recalls.

At the time, Robin Helfrich felt rather helpless herself.

At first she wanted to bail her son out or get him more visitation privileges, but she learned there was little she could do except set aside 30 minutes a day to visit her son, she says.

"I didn't know that he would make it in the beginning," Robin Helfrich admits. "It's kind of a fearful thing because you have no control."

Kyle got through juvenile hall all right, but he calls it a waste of time.

"I don't think it helped me; It's supposed to correct you, but it just made me an angry person," he says. "It was awful. ... It's the worst thing to lose your freedom."

Mission Erasable

TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT persist in the juvenile justice debate: The "classical school" believes in remedying misbehavior with punishment. The more radical the misbehavior, the stronger the punishment.

The "positive school," as justice reformers of yore came to be known, opposes prison time and seeks to help troubled kids before they commit crimes.

The American idea of a juvenile justice system surfaced in the late 1800s. Juvenile courts formed just before the turn of the century, when the country was full of well-meaning reformers. Somewhere between dismantling monkey-wrenching political machines and banishing demon alcohol, reformers got the idea that lawbreaking kids should be treated differently from adult criminals. They put their faith in newly emerging social science and psychology and resolved to offer guidance rather than punishment. States established separate systems to diagnose young offenders and prescribe treatment.

Today, less than a century later, it's hard to find any difference between the juvenile and adult justice systems, except that the kids have fewer rights. Somewhere along the way, politicians figured out that it's popular to punish criminals, even if the criminals are kids.

During the past 20 years, legislatures around the country have eroded the discretion of juvenile court judges, mandated tougher juvenile punishments and lowered the age at which children may be tried as adults. California eventually scrapped the rehabilitative programs that were the core of juvenile justice here and the envy of other states during the 1960s and '70s.

Juvenile courts lacked bail and juries from the beginning, but those were set aside as unneeded--the plan was to throw out the trial-court model and get everyone involved to sit down and decide what was best for the child.

Along the way, the "classical school" thinkers have tweaked and adjusted the states' juvenile justice systems into prisons for pint-sized offenders. Although the rehabilitative organs are in place, programs are too small and underfunded to serve more than a tiny percentage of the inmates flowing through state and county facilities. About 10 percent of inmates receive rehabilitation statewide. And Santa Clara County's juvenile hall is no exception to the rule.

Nobody receives rehabilitation at juvenile hall because these programs exist at long-term lockups, such as county ranches and California Youth Authority facilities.

The last decade or so has been the worst according to the positive school, after the Supreme Court handed down a decision saying that punishment is a perfectly acceptable form of rehabilitation, says Bridgett Jones, supervisor of the Santa Clara County public defender's juvenile unit. That decision resulted in a proliferation of incarcerations, while rehabilitative programs faced yet another round of cutbacks.

Jones says the resulting patchwork juvenile justice system leaves parents feeling angry and abused.

"There is a real feeling of unfairness," Jones says. "The parents and caretakers are shoved to one side. They have no rights. Somebody makes a decision, and that's usually based on some probation report. It feels like they're going through an assembly line every step of the way. I can see why they feel like they have no power."

Crime and Banishment: With the exception of one hour a day in the exercise yard, juvenile inmates spend most of their days indoors.

Prose and Cons

DESPITE THE OUTRAGE of parents and devoted professionals like Jones, the loudest shouting about juvenile justice reforms is still being done by people who want harsher punishments and fewer rights for young offenders.

Lawmakers writing bills in the state and federal capitals argue both sides of the classical vs. positive debate. Of course, none of the pro-rehabilitation bills offers concessions to the pro-punishment camp and vice versa.

Republicans in Washington, D.C., want to try 14-year-olds as adults. Their counterparts in the California Assembly are working on bills that would expand juvenile courts to handle more cases and impose a daytime curfew for minors. Gov. Pete Wilson proposed a bill in April that would require adult trials for youthful murderers and sex offenders; the bill died in the Assembly after he insisted that execution should remain an option for 14-year-olds.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (San Jose) has been fighting on the House floor to establish federal grants for programs that prevent juvenile crime.

"Harsh punishment is less effective than rehabilitation and intervention," Lofgren says over the phone. But few Republicans on Capitol Hill want to listen to Lofgren's proposal.

"I can't even get a hearing for my bill," Lofgren said. "They're going in the exact opposite direction, which is to throw more juveniles into adult facilities with adults, which probably has terrible outcomes."

Lofgren hopes President Clinton will take up a position similar to hers and lean on Republicans to go the route of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Clinton's only move so far has been to criticize Republican efforts for being "soft on guns."

Kumli's Cure

KURT KUMLI, the supervisor of Santa Clara County's juvenile prosecution unit, meets me in the western lobby of juvenile hall, near the courtrooms.

He looks like a lawyer, with his dark hair slicked neatly back and his medium-sized frame draped in a navy blue suit and floral tie. He strides confidently across the lobby to shake my hand and leads me to his corner office in the juvenile prosecution unit, a bare-walled room furnished with four mismatched chairs and a wooden desk.

Kumli has worked Santa Clara County juvenile cases for eight years, long enough to become more than a little frustrated with the system.

Kumli's critique is this: the county ought to be rehabilitating more kids and locking up fewer of them. The system has all the tools it needs to handle its job right now, despite frantic political maneuvering in the state and federal capitals, he adds.

The biggest problem with the juvenile justice system, Kumli explains, is that it's "offense-driven," meaning a kid's experience at juvenile hall is determined by what he or she did--not by the kind of rehabilitation needed.

Kids most likely to commit repeat offenses or who have substance abuse problems ought to be incarcerated, Kumli says, so the state can help them. Those kids need rehabilitation programs offered on the inside, and the county needs to keep them off the street for a while as a matter of public safety, he says. But none of that is happening.

Instead of steering the most needful juveniles into incarceration and rehabilitation, juvenile officials in Santa Clara County lock up only the kids accused of serious offenses, as state law requires. But often, Kumli says, a careful look at a case shows that it would be better to not lock up the offender because circumstances surrounding the offense prove that the kid involved is not a hard-core criminal.

And just as often, Kumli says, the kids released after supposedly minor offenses, such as car theft or another misdemeanor, are recognized by juvenile hall officials as the kids most likely to come back to the hall again and again until the state finds a reason not to let them out.

"You have a recipe for delinquency," Kumli explains, adding that some of the ingredients are a drug-dependent parent, gang affiliation and a lack of supervision.

Often those kids get to go home because the rules say they can't be kept unless they're accused of a serious crime.

Childhood's End: Because of the high volume of youth cases, three inmates are sometimes forced to live in a deteriorating cell made for two.

No Vacancy

THE OTHER PROBLEM with the system is the shortage of beds, Kumli says. The three county ranches are so intent on getting kids through to make room for the next bunch that most of the inmates never get into rehabilitative programs. A minor who commits a crime because of a drug addiction can serve 60 or so days at a ranch and still be on the waiting list for drug counseling when released, he says. About 10 percent of the inmates incarcerated in California get into rehabilitative programs.

"Locking them up is only effective if you do something for those kids while you lock them up," Kumli said. "A lot of times, when we send kids to CYA [California Youth Authority] for the great programs, we're lying to ourselves because of the chances of getting kids into the programs."

Kumli said he'd like to see rehabilitation programs improved and expanded and to see more resources for probation departments, which monitor inmates after release and make sure they stay on the straight and narrow.

Kumli additionally would like to see the entire system become more open to the public. He compares the secrecy of the juvenile justice system to the College of Cardinals: No one knows how it works, but you can find out the results if you wait outside to see if the puff of smoke is white or black.

Legislators need to realize that reforming the juvenile justice system is not a battle of punishment vs. rehabilitation, Kumli says. He's irked by the ongoing rivalry between the punishers and the rehabilitators.

"I don't see incarceration and programs as being mutually exclusive," he says.

For some kids, rehabilitation in a locked facility is best, Kumli says, comparing juvenile rehabilitation to drug-abuse treatment: some can be cured in an outpatient program, and some can only make it in a residential program.

Juvenile hall officials need to start paying attention to individual kids and determine carefully whether it will help the kids to be locked up and what type of rehabilitation, if any, is needed, Kumli says.

Later, when I talk to Bridgett Jones, Kumli's counterpart in the public defender's office, she also argues for rehabilitation over punishment, but she wants kids to get it on the outside. Jones says locking kids up for rehab programs can't be the answer because it has already failed. She will not concede that any child deserves to be locked up.

Kumli goes on to say that overall, the system only needs a little fine-tuning. After all, it almost works now, he says:

"Despite the fact that this place has a sausage-factory mentality, I think if you learn the laws and learn how to work with--or around--the laws, you can do good things."

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

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