As California overhauls its juvenile justice system, counties take the lead on rehabilitation

It’s a change prompted not only by a steep drop in youth crime over the past few decades, but also by state laws that limit jail time for youth and new research into what helps truly transform children’s lives. But it also poses great challenges for counties that historically haven’t been in the youth incarceration business for years at a time.

Richart said the biggest challenge now is to make his outdated, decades-old juvenile hall feel less like a prison and more like a school, home and therapy space.

“This facility was opened about 19 years ago but in my opinion it was designed in an older style and modality. So when you walk through the facility, you hear the steel doors closing, you see the concrete aspects of the facility, the cinderblock walls,” he said.

El Dorado County is not alone in this – most counties work with similar facilities. Some are being rebuilt; El Dorado County is considering building a new facility in Placerville. But that will take years, so in the meantime the probation services are making small changes to make the current buildings more livable and less prison-like. And they focus on what Richart considers most important: people.

“Yes, the facilities matter, but what matters tenfold is the staff. If you see someone a certain way, you tend to treat them that way. And if you tend to treat them that way, they’re going to tend to behave that way,” he said, adding that if the facility is a “limiting factor … it’s definitely not something that prevents my staff from actually doing the kind of family work that we have been doing for a decade.

This means the staff here act more like social workers than cops; they build trust with young people. The facility has been painted and decorated to look more like a school than a prison. And young people here spend little time in their rooms; instead, they attend school together or participate in therapy, family visits, or other programs.

But the sentence for 21-year-old Reid Butler also presents one of the challenges for counties: State law now allows youths to remain in the juvenile system until age 26. This means you could have 12 and 13 year olds alongside young adults with incredibly different needs and experiences.

‘The times have changed’

In San Mateo County, probation officials are grappling with many of the same issues and working to create better work and educational spaces so that when a 26-year-old is released, he or she is ready to find a job.

Jehan Clark is superintendent of the county probation agency. As she walks through the San Mateo facility, she points to a large yard anchored by a lawn and a track. To the side are chickens that the youngsters look after, as well as planters where they grow food that they will later help cook.

Clark said it all makes the common areas here feel more like a campus than a prison — and keeps the kids productive and occupied.

“These kids are barely in their rooms,” she said. “They are at school all day. If they are graduating or not in school, they are doing some type of work. After school they exercise, what we call our big muscle activity, then they have dinner, take a shower, then they’re programming.

But inside the housing unit, like in El Dorado County, things are more like a traditional jail. That is, until you enter a large room painted a soothing blue and covered in bright renderings of sea creatures.

“It’s called the reef… [it’s] our multisensory de-escalation room. So for young people who have more, you know, mental health issues, maybe they’re getting bad news, they just need to calm down, stabilize,” Clark said.

Jehan Clark, superintendent of facilities for San Mateo County probation, stands in the “multi-sensory de-escalation room” of juvenile hall. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Clark, who has worked in this field for decades, says this room exemplifies the change in philosophy from one that emphasized the institutionalization of young people. Now juvenile probation officials are trying to create environments that mimic home life so children don’t have to learn how to act when released.

“Times have changed. Things are very different. And so, there’s no room for confinement. You know, if a youngster has a problem, he can kind of take a break, but then he right back,” she said.

It also means that probation agencies include families in the treatment of young people, because often the problems that drive young people to commit crimes start at home. And in Fresno County in the Central Valley, it will also mean more community-based programs so young people aren’t necessarily locked in a juvenile hall for their entire sentence.