Reformers Flail at Lockup Boom: In a Reversal, County Strives To Keep Kids Out of Its Beds

Martha Shirk
December 1, 2001

Santa Cruz, Calif.

This mid-sized coastal county hasn’t always been a model for juvenile detention reform.

Its 42-bed detention center exceeded capacity on 355 days in 1996, creating dangerous conditions for staff and youth. Its detention alternatives were poorly designed. With no objective criteria in place, decisions to detain were subjective and vulnerable to whim. Latino youth, who represent about one-third of the county’s youth, occupied nearly two-thirds of the beds.

Santa Cruz County tried to do what many jurisdictions do when their detention centers are overflowing – add beds. But in 1998, the California Board of Corrections, which doles out state and federal construction grants, turned down the county’s request for a grant to remodel its facility and add 18 beds.

Santa Cruz County couldn’t afford to expand on its own. So since then, the county has demonstrated that detention use can be reduced through systematic reform. The county has:

  • Reduced its average daily population to 35, from a high of 61 in 1996.
  • Cut the average stay to nine days, from almost 13.
  • Increased its use of community-based alternatives.
  • Decreased Latino youth to 50 percent of the detention population, from 64 percent.

How did Santa Cruz County do it? By using an array of proven detention reform tools to build on its existing strengths.

Santa Cruz County already had some things going for it when it turned away from expansion and towards reform. Its residents were known for their progressive views on social issues, which meant there was less hysteria than elsewhere about juvenile crime. Multiple detention alternatives were in place, even if they weren’t exemplary. The court was one of the most efficient in the state. And the county already had nine years of experience in integrating mental health and juvenile services.

When John Rhoads was hired in 1997 as the chief probation officer, he brought the detention reform strategies he had seen succeed at his previous post in Sacramento County, one of the initial sites for the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

(Sacramento County substantially reduced its detention rate over the initiative’s three-year implementation phase, but has seen its numbers shoot up recently as leadership in the county changed and embraced a more “get tough” juvenile crime strategy.)

Within two years, Rhoads got Santa Cruz County designated as a Casey model site, and began implementing its formula for reform:

  • Data-based decision-making.
  • A culturally competent staff.
  • The adoption of objective detention criteria.
  • Continuous fine-tuning of a risk assessment instrument.
  • Use of an “expediter” to speed youth through the system.
  • Improved detention alternatives, including electronic home monitoring and community-based day centers.
  • Faster post-dispositional placements.
  • Improved conditions of confinement.

Santa Cruz’s operation isn’t perfect. The detention center often holds more girls than it can house in single rooms. But instead of trying to build more beds, the county is looking for community-based alternatives. If it doesn’t find them, it will develop them, Rhoads says.

It takes more than a formula to turn a system around, Rhoads says. “Knowing your mission and having a vision is very, very important.”

And you’ve got to believe that “the whole process of detention is not a healthy one. It’s not something that heals children. It actually harms children, no matter how wonderfully we do it.”


Shirk, Martha. "Reformers Flail at Lockup Boom: In a Reversal, County Strives To Keep Kids Out of Its Beds." Youth Today, December 2001/January 2002, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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