Michael Bryant has been in and out of Juvenile Hall in Santa Cruz since he was 13 years old, when he started drinking alcohol everyday. Now 17, Bryant is doing time in a treatment center after plea-bargaining on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.
Some counties would have viewed this crime as a second strike and sent Bryant to a state facility. But Santa Cruz rarely sends youth to the state for supervision. In part, that’s because the county is a participant in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
But like all California counties, Santa Cruz was also forced by state legislation to come up with new ways to keep youth out of detention facilities. For the past decade, county and state personnel have been “realigning” the juvenile justice system, in a process similar to the realignment of state prisons that started this October.
Bryant is relieved that he’s been diverted to treatment.
“Everyone that’s been says its pretty much getting you ready for prison,” he said of California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
Instead of preparing for a life in prison, Bryant is working on a life without alcohol. “I can’t put alcohol in my system if I don’t want to get locked up again,” Bryant said. He has an apartment and a job lined up for when he finishes his treatment program in three to five months.
California counties could learn from the decade-long juvenile realignment process as they struggle to incorporate adult inmates from state prisons into their county jails and reduce overall inmate populations following the passage of AB 109. The state reduced the juvenile population by 88% since 1996 – and did it with no increase in juvenile crime.
The number of youth in DJJ facilities peaked in 1996 at 10,112. The population had steadily risen since the 1970s. A recent study released by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice attributes the increase to factors including decreased state funding for local programs, which essentially made it cheaper for counties to send kids who break the law to state facilities.
Instead of building more facilities to deal with the increasing population, legislators passed SB 681, which created a sliding scale of costs for counties sending youth to state facilities. For less severe offenses, counties were charged 100% of the cost to incarcerate the youth ($2600 a month). For more severe offenders, counties paid the minimum rate of $150 a month. This created an incentive for counties to keep youth offenders local.
Legislators also passed AB 2312, which provided $33 million to support local juvenile justice programs. And The Juvenile Crime Enforcement and Accountability Challenge Grants gave nearly $50 million to local counties for programs and nearly $500 million to build county juvenile facilities.
“The dollars that came down didn’t have a lot of requirements on how the funding was used locally. I think that was appropriate,” said Santa Cruz Chief Probation Officer Scott McDonald.
Santa Cruz’s juvenile hall was old and overcrowded in the late 1990s, and community members were concerned with the disproportionate number of Latino youth in the system. Then Santa Cruz became a model site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which aims to reduce youth incarceration by focusing on comprehensive social services.
Since then, the number of youth incarcerated in Santa Cruz County has dropped by 57% and the gap between incarceration rates of Latino and youth of other races has decreased.
The number of youth in DJJ facilities and camps was reduced to 8,000 by 2007. Legislators then passed the official juvenile realignment legislation, AB 81, which prohibited counties from sending non-violent offenders to state facilities. By that point, many counties, like Santa Cruz, had already stopped sending low-level offenders to DJJ.
Juvenile realignment also meant that non-violent offenders would be supervised by county probation instead of parole.
Probation Officer Ray Mizyed handles all of those juvenile cases for Alameda County. When the legislation first passed, it was so vague that Mizyed developed a new system for how to deal with these youth. For the first year he went to each of their hearings before a judge to make recommendations on their behalf – something that is usually done by a District Attorney.
Mizyed works well with the parole office in Oakland. “Not to knock them, I understand their caseloads are crazy, but they didn’t appear to be as hands on,” said Mizyed.
The parole office did, however, have vouchers for hotel rooms and could help with housing. Mizyed has to find creative ways to get his probationers services like healthcare, housing and work.
But he is able to give his cases more attention. “I would see my guys every week, you get to know them, see the family, it’s more effective,” Mizyed said.
Under juvenile realignment, county probation officers have also supervised people released from DJJ since Jan. 2011.
Nine months ago Henry Hernandez became one of Mizyed’s first probationers under this provision.
“He’s really hard on me sometimes, but the reason he does it is cause he doesn’t want me to violate” said Hernandez.
Hernandez served three years in DJJ after shooting someone from a rival gang in the arm.
“I’ve always had negative role models,” said Hernandez. He’s glad to be supervised by county probation where he can work with Mizyed.
“I need somebody to motivate me if I don’t have somebody motivating me to do good – what am I to do?” said Hernandez.
Barry Krisberg, one of the authors of the report A New Era in California Juvenile Justice, calls juvenile realignment a success.
The counties had time to prepare and were encouraged to be innovative in their programs, Krisberg said.
Boot camps and scared straight programs don’t work for juveniles, counties found. But programs like Reaffirming Young Sisters’ Excellence (RYSE), which specifically addressed the unique needs of girls in the juvenile justice system in Alameda, had strong results.
“That was probably one of our most successful programs,” said Alameda County Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad.
But the funding ran out, and the program ended a few years ago.
Alameda County also created the Community Probation program, which puts probation officers in community organizations serving youth. They once had 40 interns and 10 contracts with community based organizations. When Muhammad entered his position earlier this year there were no interns and only 3 contracts with community organizations because they’d lost much of their funding.
Now, Alameda County relies on programs like the Youth Offender Block Grant, created to give counties a lot of flexibility to come up with ways to keep youth out of DJJ. Alameda County uses these funds to provide more intensive supervision to high-risk youth.
All the programs of juvenile realignment have generally meant lower youth recidivism in Alameda County, Muhammad said.
Not all counties have had such success, according to Krisberg.
“Some of counties spent buckets of money on risk assessment, which wasn’t very effective,” said Krisberg.
Twenty-five to 30 percent of the youth in detention centers still don’t need to be there, Krisberg said.
“You don’t need to put kids in secure detention facilities because they missed a probation meeting or pissed off a judge in a hearing,” he said.
Krisberg suggests that counties take the money spent on incarcerating those youth and invest in proven community groups.
Counties can learn from juvenile realignment as they start adult realignment, Krisberg said.
There are differences in dealing with a much larger adult population and a much shorter timeframe, which is lamentable, Krisberg said.
But he also notes that the success of juvenile realignment could ease public safety concerns, because the youth crime rate has declined throughout juvenile realignment.
The youth in the system were the largest beneficiaries of realignment, Krisberg said.
“It took them out of terribly toxic environment and got them out of cages, got them out of prison cells. Got them back home into the community,” he said.
Callie Shanafelt is a correspondent for the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org.