They were smoking in the car, and his friend began speeding on the highway. A police officer tried to pull them over, but his friend decided to outrun the cop. It didn’t end well. The passenger, then a Gunn freshman, was handed his first sentence to a juvenile detention center and fell into an unfortunate cycle: juvenile detention center, probation, a probation violation and a return to a detention center. Ben, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is not yet 18, but he has logged a total of 14 months in juvenile detention, five separate times over the course of the last two and a half years.
Ben is one of 55,000 minors who are sent to a juvenile detention center nationally each year. Although intended to protect at-risk youths, many youth detention centers have outdated practices that sometimes result in more harm than good.
Even though the purpose of juvenile detention and correction centers is to help minors improve their lives, these facilities often hinder the detainees’ access to education and provide little to no preparation for future education opportunities. Even rehabilitation centers, which are supposed to focus on helping minors return to a healthy lifestyle, can provide inadequate education unless they are private and expensive. Moreover, teenagers entangled in the criminal justice system often come from families who find it difficult to support them, leaving it to offenders’ own motivation and accountability to work their way toward recovery. It can be, and often is, a long road, but not an impossible one.
Someone with a juvenile crime record might find it harder than they hope to leave that life behind. Having a juvenile record can pose challenges to accessing higher education. Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application, for instance, include a discipline question about whether an applicant has been convicted of a misdemeanor, a felony or another crime.
“Palo Alto High School is not informed of such court proceedings, unless it was related to a school event or something happened to someone at school,” said College and Career Center counselor Sandra Cernobori. “So we just say, ‘we can’t answer this because we don’t know.’ Or if we know, we say what we know. Typically an administrator writes a line.”
In addition, many college applications also ask whether an applicant ever faced a disciplinary violation at school related to academic or behavioral misconduct that resulted in probation, suspension, removal, dismissal or expulsion.
Typically, a College and Career Center counselor, the applicant’s teacher advisor and the applicant each are asked to answer these questions, and the applicant is given the opportunity to provide an explanation for the violation.
Misdemeanors are supposed to be removed from a person’s criminal record, leaving a clean slate for students who are 18 during the college application process, whereas felonies remain on their record.
When a minor is assigned time in a correction center, they must miss a period of school ranging from a few days to many months and give up other commitments such as a job or a sport. A minor is not required to report their sentence to their school, even if the sentence is for a period of time that may interfere with academics. Ms. Cernobori said such a student would likely be “disenrolled.” All this causes problems if the student has college aspirations.
According to a 2010 study, 60 percent of U.S. colleges consider criminal records when accepting students. Eric Godfrey, Vice Provost of the University of Washington, was quoted in The American Prospect magazine as saying that the university has a “high obligation to ensure that this campus is safe,” when asked in 2013 why the university was considering adding criminal background questions to its application. Criminal records are often used as a screening tactic not just for admissions but also as a factor that could affect financial aid or disqualify students from using a federal tax credit.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 prevents adults convicted of a misdemeanor or felony from receiving higher education benefits such as student loans or Pell Grants for low-income families. Without these benefits, even students who have been accepted at a school may not have the financial means to attend.
But students mired in the criminal justice system also find that their education at the time is hurt. Many incarcerated minors are denied the opportunity to complete or advance their own education even though youth detention centers generally have educational systems in place.
In many youth detention centers, the quality of education has proven to be substandard. Many facilities fail to provide the students with the necessary curriculum required by the given state, resulting in failure to receive credit for classes taken. Additionally, when juveniles are placed in the adult system, it is likely that they will receive no education whatsoever. This system makes it increasingly difficult for minors to receive higher education when released.
Adam, a current Paly sophomore whose name has been changed at his request in order to remain anonymous, experienced low standards of education while spending time in the Santa Clara Youth Detention Center. He attended the center in September after being charged with a felony for assault with a deadly weapon; the charge was later determined inaccurate and Adam was charged with a misdemeanor instead.
“The school there is technically at the same level [Paly is] at, but it is so easy,” Adam said. “It’s middle school math, middle school history, . . I could do this sh-t in a second.”
Ben, who was placed in juvenile detention in San Mateo County and who also spent time at Camp Glenwood, a site for extended detention and rehabilitation run by the San Mateo Probation Department, also expressed disappointment in the academics provided during his stays.
“All the grades are mixed in,” said Ben. “There was one unit for [kids] 16 [years old] and up, and there was one for the little kids [which were younger than 16]. Yeah, they had an education, but it wasn’t really good, at all.”
Camp Glenwood is located in La Honda, Calif., a rural setting, and it helps resident youth with education, behavior, family relations and substance abuse. Residents have to be recommended to the camp by their probation officer; Ben was recommended to attend Camp Glenwood after violating his probation for the fourth time. The camp also teaches the minors to sustain positive interpersonal relationships, while providing counseling for mental health, including meditation sessions. The average commitment time at Camp Glenwood is nine months, and the average daily population is 30 minors.
In addition to publicly funded rehabilitation centers like Camp Glenwood, there are private rehabilitation facilities. Families that can afford to send their children to private rehabilitation centers therefore have an advantage over those who have to wait to be recommended to a public rehabilitation center.
According to Rep. Tony Cardenas, a Democratic congressman from Southern California, seven out of 10 children who spend time at a rehabilitation center will not end up in prison or court. Kids who are sent to detention centers face tougher odds – seven out of 10 are likely to return to prison as adults.
Juvenile detention also affects individuals long after their school years. Many delinquent youths with a history of significant trauma or loss, limited social support, limited adult guidance or limited academic success are at risk for behavioral problems in adulthood, according to a study led by Karen Abram, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. The study initially surveyed 1,800 individuals who had served time in juvenile detention, and reconnected with them five and 12 years later. During those check-ins, the investigators looked for patterns among the participants in areas like educational achievement, independent living, criminal activity, substance abuse, parenting activities, gainful activities and relationships.
The study found that individuals have trouble steering their life back on track after being released from juvenile detention.
“Involvement in the juvenile justice system can lead to a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse,” Abram said in a university news release.
Only one-fifth of the males and one-third of the females had a full time job or were enrolled in school 12 years later. Only half of the participants had a high school degree or equivalent, according to the study.
Unfortunately, family wealth is also a large indicator of future success. Upper- and middle-class children usually do not need to worry as much about facing the consequences that are a harsh reality for lower-class minors. Financially secure families may be able to afford treatment, time at private rehabilitation centers, therapy and other helpful recovery tactics.
For many of these incarcerated students, family members are a crucial support system in the struggle to help their loved one recover from past mistakes. However, for some students, their families are part of the problem.
Studies have found that the lack or absence of guidance from parental figures can lead to delinquency problems from a young age. For example, when parents voice threats that lack sincerity, children gain control by failing to obey their parents’ instructions. Also, physical punishment has proven to be ineffective, usually resulting in a non-compliant child.
As families have an enormous amount of influence on their children’s manners, values and upbringing, they can also be a large factor in the child’s future success and improvement.
According to the CEO of the Youth First Initiative, Liz Ryan, “We know from research that when young people are in contact with their families, they’re going to actually do much better.”
Research has shown that the rate of recidivism is consequently lower for incarcerated minors with close family ties. Youth detention centers can have worsening effects on juveniles as children separated from their families for long periods of time have less support and therefore are more likely to return to the detention system.
Sam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is living proof of this phenomenon, as his family’s support motivated him to improve his life while at Muir Wood Teen Treatment Facility, a private rehabilitation center. A former Paly student, Sam attended the center this year after being charged with several minor misdemeanors.
“Having family contact did help a lot because I could understand what they were going through and they could understand what I was going through,” Sam said. “We had a lot of group therapy sessions on weekends and honestly, talking with them motivated me to go above and beyond. At another facilities, family visitation is rare.”
Sam also has close family members who suffer from addiction.
“Their past experiences allowed them to be more sympathetic than some of my friends’ parents,” Sam said. “I accepted their decision of sending me away because I know they understand and just want the best for me.”
In these cases, parents who have experienced substance abuse issues may be better equipped to assist their child in an effective and more empathetic manner. Recovered substance abusers who have experienced addiction understand the struggle behind recovery, something a majority of people could never fully relate to.
According to the Muir Wood Teen Treatment Facility website, the program highly values family involvement. Families take part in weekly family therapy sessions. As the program only treats 10 boys at a time, the directors are available to facilitate effective and meaningful meetings. Every Saturday, families also take part in a group family program, featuring guest lecturers and ending with a group therapy session.
This high-end treatment facility is equipped with psychologists and therapists, giving families generous resources to help their child rehabilitate. However, Sam claims it cost his family upwards of $1,200 a night, producing an inevitable financial issue for many families. Obviously, most incarcerated juveniles do not have access to private rehab professionals or the opportunity to meaningfully speak with their family members frequently. This leaves room to wonder how dramatically different the juvenile justice system would be if everyone had access to such helpful programs.
In order to improve the odds of rehabilitation, more states and counties are adopting the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which was launched with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation in the 1990s. Its goal is to relieve dependency on local confinement for youth pending trial. JDAI operates in nearly 300 counties nationwide, leading to dramatic declines in youth detention populations through a model rooted in eight core foundations.
In 1982, JDAI began its demonstration phase. Five pilot sites were opened to implement the eight core interrelated elements in their reform strategy. Initially, they produced mixed results, but after the second year, two of the pilot sites — one in Oregon and one in Illinois — along with two replication sites — including Santa Cruz County — recorded significant success, each reducing detention rates by more than 50 percent over the course of 10 years.
The goal of JDAI is to reduce the number of youth they commit to state juvenile correctional facilities and other residential placements by intervening at the detention phase. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency in An Examination of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative: Policies, Practices and Sustained Reform reports that “placement into a locked detention center pending court significantly increases the odds that youth will be found delinquent and committed to corrections facilities and can seriously damage their prospects for future success.”
Across all sites reporting, commitments to state custody were down by more than 43 percent in 2011 from the sites’ pre-JDAI level. Data from the 2014 JDAI progress report shows that participating jurisdictions admitted a total of 59,000 fewer youth to detention in 2012 than in the year prior to launching JDAI, a drop of 39 percent.
JDAI is also generating substantial savings for taxpayers. Since JDAI decreases the number of youth that attend JDAI correction sites, jurisdictions avoid costs for the construction and operation of secure detention facilities. According to a 2014 report, 56 JDAI sites have closed detention units or whole facilities as a result of smaller detention populations, reducing their detention capacity by a combined total of 2,050 beds, which translates to an estimated cumulative savings of roughly $143.5 million per year.
Overall, outdated practices and financial unfairness act as determining factors in the likelihood of success after rehabilitation. Despite these common obstacles, when minors are motivated to improve their lives, recovery is certainly attainable.
“If there’s anyone reading this who has a problem, whether it be substance abuse or something else, it will never benefit you positively,” Sam said. “You might get a small amount of fun from it, but at the end of the day, it will lead you down a dark path. It’s all about maturity and realizing if you keep doing what you’re doing, your life could end up the opposite of what you want.”