When Sonny Lara was 12 years old, growing up in San Jose, Ca., he decided to make a name for himself. He started selling drugs and committing street crimes with other adolescents in his neighborhood.
That decision — paired with an unstable home life — led him down a path of gangs, drug trafficking and addiction.
“You’d go in to juvenile hall and all the kids wanted to fight you,” said Lara. “You’d have to be ready to bite their nose off, their ear off — whatever you gotta do to survive
“I grew up when there were still Black Panthers, Brown Berets, Black Berets. It was a lot of racial wars then.”
Lara, now 63, spent four years in prison and eight months in the Elmwood County Jail for drug trafficking—one of many kids swept up in the criminal justice system. His incarceration preceded the juvenile crime wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s that spurred cries of “super predators” by politicians — the fear that ultra-violent young people would wreak havoc all over American cities.
“Super-predators” turned out to be a myth, but it left young minorities as the principal victims. It also fueled tough-on-crime laws, and triggered a massive expansion of juvenile detention centers at taxpayers’ expense.
Over the past 20 years, tireless work from criminal justice reform advocates and organizations, backed with scientific data about youth brain development and the negative impacts of jailing young people, persuaded lawmakers to finally began making changes.
New laws were passed aimed at correcting punitive sentencing for youth in favor of rehabilitation and diversion programs.
In California, the population of children and young adults, aged 12 to 25, in the correctional system has dropped from 10,000 in 1996 to 627 as of June, 2018. County-run juvenile halls and camps also emptied out over the time- period.
However, the work is far from over.
Despite the decline in juvenile arrests, California’s racial gap has continued to grow. A recent report by an Oakland-based research and advocacy organization, Human Impact Partners, titled “Juvenile Injustice: Charging Youth as Adults is Ineffective, Biased, and Harmful,” found that black and Hispanic children are “overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system.”
The racial disparities are equally apparent nationally. A study by The W. Haywood Burns Institute found that while just 14 percent of all youths under 18 in the U.S. are black, 43 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls in juvenile facilities are black.
While incarceration is one part of the system and is the most expensive and harmful by far, most youths are not locked up after being arrested, but placed on probation. This form of oversight was supposed to be an alternative, but in many cases, it’s proved a gateway to incarceration. There are now over 39,000 youth on probation statewide.
Involvement in the juvenile justice system itself is harmful to young people. Probation can be a source of support and positive engagement, but too often it is the cause of young people getting locked up. Many youths are locked up over violations of probation for small infractions and can be further impacted by individual decisions made by probation officers who don’t have the best interest of youth in mind.
“Probation is a hidden secret of the juvenile justice system,” said Nate Balis, Director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group for The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“The proportion of kids put in probation remains the same year after year. It is quite similar to what it looked like with the overall approach in the 1990s. One thing to change is dramatically narrowing who ends up on probation. Kids with first offenses like shoplifting can end up on probation. We must be more discerning and divert far more youth from juvenile justice system.”
Balis says the research points to a focus on incentives rather than sanctions with individual plans for probation having a more positive effect overall. Probation remains the main sentence and response for youth in the juvenile justice system. In a 2017 study, eight out of 10 juveniles arrested were referred to county juvenile probation departments.
Balis notes there are different factors that contribute to youth of color being locked up at higher rates than their white counterparts.
“What we see when we’re working is that there’s some reaction that says the reason why it’s higher for youth of color is because of the offenses such as a youth locked up for carrying a handgun. We haven’t found that specifically; it could be part of it,” said Balis.
“It doesn’t explain the entirety of disparity. We know that policing patterns are vastly different from one jurisdiction to the next with different rates of arrest for the same crimes of selling drugs. Plus, there’s implicit bias. It’s not an easy answer on how to resolve it.”
Balis stressed that just because the work is hard doesn’t mean systems should stop trying to eradicate inequality. There’s not one quick, easy fix.
For David Muhammad, Executive Director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, the work comes down to three things: Reduce, improve and reinvest.
“Reduce has been the important piece for a long time,” Muhammad said. “I thought improvement was the most important, but now I realize that the best people at the head of these systems are not enough.
“The systems themselves have an extraordinary ability to cause harm to young people, bounce back from reform and go back to tradition correctional based system. What I’ve found is reduction is the best thing — keeping people out and away from the system.”
While Muhammad acknowledged the amount of progress made in reduction of young people coming into the juvenile justice system, there is still much to be desired when it comes to reinvestment in programs to steer youth in a positive direction. While juvenile hall populations have plummeted, leaving most facilities more than half empty, counties have been unable or unwilling to reduce spending on lockup facilities, according to a recent Chronicle report.
As a result, the annual cost to detain a youth has skyrocketed, reaching more than $500,000 in some Bay Area counties. The same trend is playing out in state-run youth prisons.
“California Youth Authority had 10,000 youth and now there’s less than 700,” Muhammad said.
“However, the money hasn’t been reinvested in the communities that these youth come from. We can’t be willing to pay between $200,000 to $300,000 per year per youth and be unwilling to invest that level of resource into youth, the families and the communities they live in.”
While a small fraction of youth pose a danger to society, Muhammad maintains that trained professionals should engage them positively and build on their strengths and assets.
With juvenile crime and arrests at record lows, now would be the perfect opportunity to revamp the juvenile justice system — from prevention to probation — in a way that truly benefits juveniles.
The collection of scientific studies and data that points to the adverse effects of incarceration as well as the recommendations from activists and former juvenile offenders alike should serve as the framework for building an equitable system.
The road to juvenile justice reform has been a long journey. There have been several bills passed in recent years aimed at further reducing the juvenile population. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers shifted the focus to rehabilitation in 2005 by reorganizing the California Youth Authority, which had been mired in lawsuits over physical assaults by staff on youth and long periods of lockdowns.
Eight of 11 youth facilities were closed, programming was changed to reflect efforts at conflict resolution, and scientific studies on neuroscience and adolescents offered a roadmap to reforms.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed bills that will prevent the transfer of 14- and 15-year-olds into adult criminal court. Senate Bill 1391 and Senate Bill 439 have banned counties from handling children who are arrested under the age of 12 in the juvenile justice system.
“It’s an endless problem with 50,000 kids or more in foster care system and they don’t have a great result in high school graduation rates,” said Brown in one of his last weeks as governor.
“Much of this is associated with poor economic situations and it’s a larger context from global capitalism. How we deal with that in the long term is of grave importance. The greater challenge is how do we bolster families in terms of legislation. Altering that big system is something we need to ponder while we look at discrete programs and interventions.”
David Steinhart has been the Director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program since 1992 and has seen many positive changes in attitudes toward juvenile justice reform.
“We advocated in the 1990s and we got nowhere at the time,” Steinhart recalled. “The governor and legislators were against it. We didn’t have leadership from legislators and governors until mid-2000s.”
In 2007, Steinhart’s organization had a heavy hand in crafting legislation that brought the youth population down by 90 percent. Steinhart was one of the main designers of California Senate Bill 81, also known as the “Juvenile Justice Realignment” bill.
The law moved juvenile offenders from state youth prisons to county facilities. To handle the influx, local probation departments received hundreds of millions of dollars to offer services and expand juvenile halls and camps.
What has made a big difference is scientific research on adolescent brain development, which has been reflected in U.S. Supreme Court rulings, along with federal government and state reform laws. Among the cases that have shaped juvenile justice in the U.S. Supreme Court:
- Beginning with the “In re Gault” (387 U.S. 1) decision in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that children facing juvenile prosecution have the majority of the same legal rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to an attorney.
- Roper v Simmons in 2005 cited the death penalty as cruel and unusual for crimes committed by youth. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion that, based on neuroscience research, youth are more likely to be susceptible to peer pressure, haven’t matured fully and have more potential for rehabilitation.
- The Miller v. Alabama ruling in 2012 made it unconstitutional to sentence someone who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime to mandatory life without parole.
“The youthful brain does not mature into the mid-20s,” Steinhart said. “That gives acknowledgment to the idea that the difference between kids and adults is not that strong when it comes to being locked up. It also gives programs availability to access to young adults that are over 18 to use youth programs.”
One area that has hampered research and reporting is the antiquated state data system that tracks reform. Having a robust system in place would allow for local government to be able to monitor and track kids under the new laws along with performance outcome measures.
“Without good data you can’t inform good state policy,” Steinhart said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in January as part of his budget that he intends to move control of the state’s juvenile justice system from correctional administrators to the Health and Human Services Agency that would oversee over 600 incarcerated youth.
While some advocates see the move as a necessary shift in culture for the state’s juvenile justice system, other community organizers and activists aren’t sold that the change will make things better for youth.
Frankie Guzman, an attorney and Director of California Youth Justice Initiative for National Center for Youth Law, says a big part of the problem is at the state level, which operates in isolation from other systems without coordination or providing assistance.
“Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan proposes to go to health and human services in an effort to rehabilitate them but does little to prevent them from being there in the first place,” said Frankie Guzman.
“We can continue to shift the safety net from one division to another, but this is no safety net. When the systems fail young people, they end up incarcerated and monitored and treated in juvenile justice system. It’s a band aid approach to a serious issue.”
Guzman is no stranger to the juvenile justice system. In 1995, he was arrested for armed robbery at age 15. He spent the next six years in and out of the system. Guzman was able to turn his life around, later graduating from UCLA School of Law in 2012 and dedicating himself to helping youth through legislation, mentoring and research.
Guzman worked with former Gov. Brown’s office on Proposition 57, which incentivized rehabilitation for inmates with credit-earning opportunities as well as moving up parole consideration for nonviolent offenders who’ve served the full term of the sentence for their primary offense. The law also prohibits prosecutors from charging youth in adult court without approval from a judge.
“I came out far worse than I came in and needed to get out of that system to get the help I needed,” Guzman said.
“Between the judge and the prosecutor, all I heard was negative things about me. I was painted as a menace to society who was irredeemable. Pain abuse and intolerance — that’s what I learned in the juvenile justice system in both the county and state.”
Guzman thinks having a state agency that oversees child welfare in a health and human services lens is a much better investment and strategy for the state. The state agency could distribute funding to community-based organizations that have direct service to youth.
Other organizations work to address gang intervention, crisis response, and mentoring/teaching at-risk youth. One of them is the Firehouse Community Development Corporation, founded by
Pastor Sonny Lara over 25 years ago.
By assessing at-risk youth and offenders using evidence-based principles, the Firehouse has been a successful part of the San Jose Mayor’s Gang Task Force and features an outreach team contracted with the city.
Pastor Lara and his team specialize in creating individual Transformational Care Plans for each youth, establishing goals, meeting with probation officers and teaching life skills focused on everything from peer pressure to anger management.
“These guys like going into juvenile institutions,” Lara said. “A few weeks ago, there was a gang-related riot in one of the juvenile halls and my guys were called in to calm the situation down. You’ve got to stay cool, calm and collected, otherwise you’ll just be throwing wood on the fire.”
The Firehouse also operates a leadership program within San Jose schools that works with students who have had four or more “F” grades on a semester report card.
Lara understands the importance of giving people a second chance by providing them with opportunities to help others and leave their criminal past behind them. Many of his employees were former incarcerated youth, who now spend their time trying to help young people to stay on the right path.
“When I was in juvenile hall, it was maximum security and had 23-hour lockdown,” said Beto Chavez, who works with Lara. “You had one hour to be on the outside and it was a fort wall with a caged top, so it was really like you never went outside. We were like animals in a cage.”
Chavez remembers everyone had their own cell with one window that the staff would periodically look through. From the ages of 11 to 18, he was in and out of juvenile hall and was bounced around to different group homes. Chavez now has an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts and a trucking license.
“When we go to the juvenile halls and speak it’s to give them hope,” said Lamont Warren, a Firehouse Community Outreach member.
“I remember when I was kid that I just wanted an opportunity. The love that Pastor Lara has for helping others is evident. If you’re willing to help yourself, he’ll help you.”
Keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system benefits everyone. By focusing on diversion programs, rehabilitative care and job opportunities for youth as well as legislative/culture changes in policy, the population of incarcerated youth will continue to decline in California.
California can serve as a prime example of the powerful impact that researchers, lawmakers and advocates and counselors can have when they all work together to reform the juvenile justice system.
Spencer Whitney, assistant opinion editor for The San Francisco Chronicle, is a John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly condensed version of an article written as part of his fellowship project. Read the full version here. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @spencewhitney.