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April 11-17, 2007

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Hall or nothing: Reformers inside the system implemented a new program at Juvenile Hall for all the right reasons. But will it have time to work before the inmate population hits a crisis point?

Crunch Time

A new program could be the solution to the county's increasing problem with repeat youth offenders. The problem is that it's quickly pushing juvenile hall to capacity

By Matt Stroud


LAST YEAR, a new juvenile detention curriculum went into effect in Santa Clara County, increasing base sentences from 120 days to 180 days. With the intent of providing more stringent schooling and focused counseling for sentenced youths, the new Enhanced Ranch Program is based on a "cognitive behavior management system," where offenders are arranged into small groups and counseled more closely and more often. It was pitched by the Santa Clara County probation department as "the most effective method of reducing recidivism rates" in juvenile offenders.

But eight months later, a serious and unforeseen problem with the change-over is becoming clear: Juvenile Hall may reach capacity before anyone knows whether the new program is effective.

According to numbers provided by Santa Clara County's Probation Department, Juvenile Hall housed 310 inmates in March—90 more than it did one year prior and the largest the population has been in more than five years. It also represents 85 percent of the facility's capacity (which is currently 360, though the county plans to increase capacity to 390 in coming weeks).

The rate of new incarcerations vs. inmate graduations are worrisome, as well. Last month, 11 boys were admitted to the James Ranch, while only three graduated. In February, 19 were admitted, and only four graduated. And 47 are currently waiting to enter a ranch facility.

Santa Clara County Juvenile Delinquency Court Judge Richard Loftus suggests that a spike in juvenile crime in the county has complicated the adoption of the longer program, placing the population of juvenile hall in danger of outgrowing its San Jose facility.

"If you assume that we will continue to admit boys to the ranches at the current rate," says Loftus, "it is going to strain [juvenile hall's] capacity."

Kathy Duque, the county's deputy chief probation officer, says the probation department is hoping the number of kids on the waiting list will decrease as the new program sees more graduates. But since the program has an indefinite length—it's designed to last six to eight months, but offenders stay at the ranches until they fulfill their graduation requirements—nothing is definite.

"We're going to wait and see how things shape up," she says.

Judge Loftus explains that when the members of the Juvenile Detention Reform commission sat down to review the problem of potential overcrowding with the probation department, they pointed out that admissions to the ranch had gone up significantly since the enhanced ranch program was enacted.

"Because we feel it's a good program," Loftus says, "we have a tendency to send kids there that we might not have sent there before."

Youth in Limbo

Young offenders are typically held in juvenile hall for 30 days, or until appropriate action is determined by the court—whether it's sending the offender home, or to a drug treatment program, or to either the Muriel Wright Residential Center or the William F. James Boys Ranch in Morgan Hill. (In 2004, the county closed the Harry Holden Ranch for Boys and converted it into a training facility for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's department). Unlike Juvenile Hall, the ranches are for teens whose crimes do not necessarily warrant commitment to the state's youth prison, California Youth Authority. But for some offenders assigned to the ranch program, the wait for placement can last as long as eight weeks.

In the meantime, they're in a veritable no-man's-land, without access to better facilities, waiting among a growing Juvenile hall population. From there, it's reasonable to ask whether or not housing kids in that kind of environment—especially if their offenses are isolated or nonviolent—is the best course of action.

According to Duque, it is. She says counselors are trying to beat the overcrowding and wait problems by introducing the Ranch Readiness Program, which allows incarcerated youths to begin serving their sentences earlier, minimizing wait time. But she conceded that, as of last weekend, there were only 30 spots available in the readiness program, creating a waiting list in juvenile hall to get on the waiting list to get into one of the ranches.

But a wait now could pay off in the future if the new program can stem the county's increasing problem with recidivism. According to court numbers, there were 3,377 new juvenile offenders in 2004. In 2005, that number declined to 2,896, a 14 percent decrease. In the meantime, repeat offenses increased from 340 to 495, and probation violations went from 990 to 1,075. So, while fewer juveniles were charged in 2005 than in 2004, the number of repeat offenses and parole violations went up—which is partly what spurred the new program. And while Duque says accurate recidivism numbers aren't yet available to scrutinize the effectiveness of the Enhanced Ranch Program, she believes the additional attention the new program provides will have an impact on the number of repeat offenders.

Still, David Soares, Santa Clara County deputy district attorney, agrees that overcrowding and eventual capacity numbers are a concern.

"Something could get in the water and 100 kids could try to kill their moms tonight," Soares says. "And yes, if we don't have resources to try and rehabilitate youth involved in crime, then, yes, potentially our lack of resources is going to affect behavior in the community."

Santa Clara County Juvenile Probation Manager Nick Birchard says 30 new beds just added for the readiness program will help. But since the juvenile hall facility isn't designed to run like the ranches, there's only so much the probation department can do to make the facilities work together effectively.

Race Issues

Other problems loom, too. Santa Clara County's 5-year-old Juvenile Detention Reform Initiative (JDR) was started to reduce incarceration rates for local teenagers, particularly minorities. Santa Clara County's overall population is about 25 percent Latino, and the percentage of Latino offenders in juvenile hall and the ranches is nearly 70 percent.

"The issue is not that we want to make the numbers be anything other than what they are," says Soares. "But the issue is that we want to eliminate any bias from the decision-making process." The reality, he says, is that there are some groups that are disproportionately represented in committing criminal acts. What the Juvenile Detention Reform Steering Committee wants is to make sure each criminal act is punished consistently across color lines.

"We want to create transparency and consistency in the system by having generalized standards that are uniformly applied," he says.

Judge Loftus says it remains to be seen whether the new program can have a positive effect on the issues at juvenile hall. Something, he says, needed to be done to turn the tide.

"Is it ideal? Absolutely not," he says. "But it's what we can do in the meantime, until we know more about how kids are going to respond to the program."


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