Opinion: Can counties really handle the incarceration of young offenders?

Gov. Jerry Brown wants California to be the first state to close its youth prisons and put counties in charge of young offenders. That makes a lot of sense, for reasons that range from troubling conditions to the system’s high rates of recidivism.

Still, how many California counties are ready to shoulder this burden, even with additional funding?

I’m proud to say that Santa Clara County is already leading the way — in part because of an innovative, homegrown nonprofit called Fresh Lifelines for Youth. FLY, which provides legal education, mentoring and community service opportunities for “at-risk” youth, is transforming lives — and saving taxpayer dollars — by keeping kids out of detention cells in the first place.

Thanks in part to these efforts, the county last summer closed five wings of its juvenile detention hall, showcasing a 50-percent drop in the county’s population of incarcerated youth.

Each year, nonetheless, more than 10,000 Santa Clara County youth are arrested, an event that is often the first step on a path toward school failure, unemployment, new crimes and adult prison.

When I was hearing cases in juvenile court, many people told me that incarceration was the only way to deal with these kids. Yet I’m convinced that programs like FLY demonstrate the concrete benefits of a more compassionate approach.

Many young people who are arrested often come from troubled families. About 80 percent of those I saw had experienced verbal, physical or sexual abuse. A majority had watched family members cycle in and out of prison.

FLY often manages to break these vicious cycles. Roughly 75 percent of program participants are not found guilty of new crimes during the program year. Compare that to the 55 percent of juveniles, in a recent estimate, who returned to crime in their first year after incarceration. FLY does this at one-tenth the cost of incarceration: spending $9,000 per student annually compared with the more than $100,000 that counties spend to lock minors up for a year.

The program began 10 years ago when its founder, Christa Gannon, was a Stanford law student on track to become a prosecutor.  After one of her high school friends was raped, she had little empathy for lawbreakers and was determined to make the world a safer place.

Fortunately for local youth, however, Gannon volunteered in Santa Clara County’s juvenile hall. She became convinced that the kids she met there would have had different lives if someone had cared.

FLY was initially designed by those same kids, whose recommendations, bolstered with research-based strategies, remain the bedrock of FLY’s work, as it annually serves more than 2,000 youth, ages 12-18, from middle-schoolers to kids on probation. FLY’s legal classes, taught by law school volunteers in detention halls, schools, and community centers from Gilroy to South San Francisco, are the “hook” that engage kids, while teaching them about the consequences of crime and motivating them to change.

All this helps explain why many law enforcement officials support this smart approach. Probation officers and judges in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties now routinely refer youth to FLY, often as a condition of probation, while other local agencies and cities have steered funds to the organization. 

As counties prepare to take on a larger role in juvenile justice, they should follow FLY’s model of working with local agencies, foundations, and community members to create cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. This will not only save taxpayers money but also help youth who are capable of change and want nothing more than to live better, safer, healthier lives.

Ed’s Note:  Judge James C. Emerson retired in 2010 after 20 years on the Santa Clara County Superior Court. He now serves on the board of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). Last month, FLY’s founder, Christa Gannon, was awarded The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, which provides $125,000 to Californians helping to solve major problems facing our state.

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