By Helen Afrasiabi, California Health Report
Chris, a 17-year-old from South Orange County, wakes up each morning at 4:30 a.m. sharp. His early wakeup call isn’t related to a paper route or extra-curricular sport, as it may be for other kids his age. He’s getting up to charge the court-ordered electronic monitor he’s about to put on for the day. The order was given by the court as part of time served for some bad choices, offenses including driving without a license and taking possession of stolen car parts.
Although Chris (his last name is being withheld to protect his privacy) is not sitting in Juvenile Hall. He is serving under the Accountability Commitment Program (ACP) – and as its name suggests, it keeps tabs on minors in place of a detention center officer.
ACP, which has been in effect for ten years, is a juvenile detention alternative. A court-sanctioned program, ACP requires all who are assigned to it to adhere to a strict daily schedule requiring their presence at a Day Reporting Center. They are picked up by the county van between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and transported to the center where they are searched, have a full school day and are randomly drug-tested. After school there is community work: painting over graffiti, weed abatement, litter pickup or cleaning the probation vehicles at the Santa Ana Probation Office. In the evenings, they are back at home and on house arrest.
Although it’s more forgiving than Juvenile Hall, it’s definitely not a free ride, says County Probation Department Public Information Officer Robert Rangel.
“We’re taking up their time all day long Monday through Friday,” Rangel said. “And when they get home only to be on house arrest, they don’t like it, so a free pass it is not.”
Beyond that, Rangel said, they cannot have friends over, and the minute they stray, there is a technician waiting to send an alert that will result in either prolonging the time served or a return to Juvenile Hall.
Despite the discipline required to make it through each day in the program, Chris and others serving along with him still consider it a fair tradeoff.
“I’d rather be in ACP than stuck in a room for hours and hours. I can eat when I want, sleep in my own bed, shower when I want and see my family,” says Chris.
Moreover, the lessons Chris has learned as a result of making it through each of his highly structured days are reflected in his attitude. When at home, he actually stops to reconsider his actions instead of acting on impulse, he said.
“When I look out the window and see people walking down the street, there is temptation there,” he said. “But I know it’s all on me. I know I’d rather go back out there as a free person.”
Chris personifies everything the courts have come to love about the program, namely that they’re seeing better results with kids in ACP by comparison with those placed in Juvenile Hall, and at a fraction of the cost.
The Accountability Commitment Program is a collaborative effort involving the Department of Education, the state and county so costs are distributed instead of coming strictly out of county coffers.
ACP began as a way to free up space in Juvenile Hall. A decade later, and space no longer a problem, the program is still in place. Wraparound services including counseling, medical services, and connecting juveniles to tattoo removal programs. These services fall under the principle of “cognitive restructuring,” which is the basis for ACP.
“There are kids here whose parents were gang members,” Rangel said. “We’re trying to undo perhaps a couple generations of behavioral patterns.”
There is a degree of compulsion to behave and perform well in class to ensure they keep the privileges they do have, like sleeping in their own beds.
Fifteen-year-old Brian, another minor serving at the ACP facility with Chris, is similarly grateful for the chance to stay out of Juvenile Hall. Brian is serving for burglary and vandalism and in his second year of probation. Busy with his homework, Brian reflects on things as simple as using the restroom alone, and how he doesn’t take that for granted anymore.
“Compared to Juvi, you have total freedom here,” he said. “If you fail, then you know you came here for no reason.”
Although the lower overhead makes it cheaper to have kids in ACP compared to Juvenile Hall – at about $50,000 less per child per year – it isn’t an option courts exercise indiscriminately. Rather, judges look at cases on an individual basis. Kids facing homicide charges, serious drug cases and sex offenders aren’t eligible for the program.
According to Carlos Pena, Supervisor at the ACP Center in Anaheim, and Deputy Juvenile Corrections Officer Patty MacIntosh, kids that end up in ACP aren’t concentrated in one particular geographic location.
“The images about these kids having financial problems and being from the other side of the tracks doesn’t hold true anymore,” MacIntosh said. “They come from all over.”
Many of the minors share common thread of family disruption, including coming from blended families, single-parent homes, and bad relationships with step-parents.
A degree of absentee parenting happening in all cases, Rangel says.
“Many of these kids are children of doctors, attorneys and other highly successful people, but the degree of parental disengagement is unbelievable sometimes.”