Juvenile justice reformers have tried for years to learn what works to help rehabilitate youth in trouble. A shift away from locking kids up has been at the forefront of reform efforts. One of the most common alternatives to incarceration is to order kids directly into probation, instead of juvenile hall. NPR says the goals of these alternative approaches don’t always match the reality, and disproportionately impact youth of color. The juvenile hall in San Leandro, Ca., has 360 beds, all of which were full when the detention center opened eight years ago. Today, the facility is half-empty. Nationwide over 16 years, juvenile incarceration has dropped by half. One reason is that judges are ordering young offenders into the probation system as an alternative to locking kids up. Kate Weisburd, who co-directs a youth justice program at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, says that while adults on probation mostly have to avoid committing a new crime, kids on probation have to abide by these sometimes subjective requirements or be locked up.
One order, “obey parents and guardians,” tripped up a teen who ended up in juvenile detention. The electronic monitor on his ankle sent him to the facility many times. “I just wanted to go outside and take a walk or something, but then I’d get in trouble,” he says. Last year probation violations were reported as the most common reason kids were incarcerated in Yolo County, Ca. Brent Cardall, the chief probation officer there, says some of that is beyond his control. “We’re not the judge and we don’t tell the youth where they go and what they do,” he says. “We enforce the orders of the court … and we have a mandate to report those violations to the court.”