California: Broad changes needed at juvenile hall facility

State blasted for treatment of offenders

A new report on Santa Clara County's juvenile hall blasts the local detention facility and the state of California for treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults serving prison sentences — an approach that can turn a delinquent into a hardened criminal.

The report — commissioned this year after Mercury News articles detailed allegations of staff abuse in the hall — calls for sweeping changes in policy and a fundamental shift in the hall culture. Released on Wednesday, it is the handiwork of seven nationally renowned consultants, and county officials promise to abide by its recommendations.

The policy changes include ending the hall staff's use of painful restraints to make teenagers comply — a technique, known as bone-lock pain compliance, that has caused serious injuries. The culture changes include requiring counselors, as staff members in the hall are called, to offer treatment, not punishment. Specifically, the report calls for an end to “unacceptable” levels of cursing and disparate treatment of gay juveniles.

“There is an irony when the job title says ‘counselor’ but the job responsibilities say ‘guard’ or ‘correctional officer,’ ” the report says.

Incident witnessed
In their report, the consultants described one incident that they said spoke volumes about the culture in the hall. On June 25, they witnessed a 13-year-old, 70-pound boy in handcuffs being restrained by seven staff members, prone on a cement slab in the isolation room. One counselor had the boy in a “figure four” while another jammed his knee into the youth's back while holding his head against the cement.

These counselors did not know the boy had suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and had a history of being abused. The staff told the consultants they thought that their aggressive restraint “would hopefully yield positive results.”

One county official said the findings shocked him. “There has to be a change in the culture there,” Supervisor Pete McHugh said. “Even though the staff has to deal with some real problems and there are some elements of danger, I think it's run too much like a prison camp.”

The report says these problems are not limited to Santa Clara County's facility, but instead typify juvenile detention in California. “The manner in which California defines juvenile detention practices should be state of the art, but, in reality, it is an indicator of how far adrift California has moved from good juvenile detention practice.”

David W. Roush, the report's author, is a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. His 26-page report was commissioned by the county board of supervisors this year in response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into excessive force in the hall and the Mercury News articles. The consultants assessing the facility for one week in late June found no evidence of systemic abuse, but rather “isolated incidents of excessive force and abusive behavior,” fed by an institutional culture akin to an adult prison. While the use of physical restraint in the San Jose juvenile hall and the injuries that resulted are well below the national average, the rate of injury “appears uncharacteristically high,” according to the report.

“The danger of any sort of law enforcement, paramilitary strategy is it can lead to a repressive environment,” Roush said. “The most effective way to return a juvenile to a healthy, law-abiding lifestyle is through a healthy relationship with a healthy adult in a healthy environment.”

In response to the much-anticipated report, Probation Chief John Cavalli — whose department oversees the hall — said he will see that the facility shifts to “more of a treatment model.” He praised his employees for the difficult job they do with society's roughest kids, many of whom are locked up for serious and violent offenses. “We're fully committed to initiating improvements as recommended by the consultant's report that will benefit minors, parents and staff,” Cavalli said.

The department announced dramatic plans for reform in recent weeks, including the installation of video cameras and locked grievance boxes. An aikido specialist was on site Wednesday preparing to train the staff in restraint techniques.

But there is more work ahead for the department.

30 changes sought
The Roush report calls for 30 specific changes, including better reporting of incidents, more independent oversight, and greater emphasis on respecting youths in custody. Consultants recommend an ombudsman and a citizen advisory panel, as well as an internal affairs unit that will investigate staff misbehavior and increase accountability.

The report states that youths routinely spend too much time in their cell rooms, including 21 hours and 45 minutes for “C level” offenders, youths in the most restricted units, and 15 hours and 15 minutes for youths on levels A and B. This amount far exceeds best practice standards.

The report also questions the reliability of incident reports written after a restraint or injury occurs, because hall staffers write reports in groups, and because of a conflict of interest when supervisors investigate their staff members.

“Training is the best method to change the institutional culture,” the report says. However, the report is not entirely damning. It credits county and community leaders for their commitment to improving the juvenile justice system — singling out board chairwoman Blanca Alvarado as “a champion for good juvenile detention.” Roush said Cavalli and the union representing the staff were open and cooperative. He praised the hall's mental health staff, saying it forms good relationships with the youths in custody, many of whom come from abusive households and suffer from a range of mental illnesses.

The report stated that much of the damage done to youths is caused by a group of counselors overly focused on punishment who “appear to have a substantial negative influence on the institutional climate.” While acknowledging that grievance procedures can make it difficult to root out abusive staff members, Roush said there should be a transfer policy on the books that would ensure that an “offending staff member no longer has any supervisory responsibility over any youth.”

The board of supervisors approves the probation department's budget, but the probation chief is appointed by and reports to the Superior Court. McHugh said he and other supervisors only learned of problems in the hall because of Mercury News reports. Since then, he said: “I am disappointed with the leadership that has been exhibited.”

Lou Silver, the attorney for the Santa Clara County Probation Peace Officers Union, questioned the report's statistics on the high rate of injury, and expressed skepticism about a culture change in a “lock-up” facility that by nature must impose strict discipline.

But Roush said he is confident that the problems are not insurmountable. “We talked to enough people, enough staff and enough kids to realize that there is a solid core of caring and competent staff in that facility,” he said. “We believe there's a core group that will support a change.”

By Karen de Sá Mercury News
14 January 2004