California: Broad changes needed at juvenile hall
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
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
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.
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.
effective way to return a juvenile to a healthy, law-abiding lifestyle
is through a healthy relationship with a healthy adult in a healthy
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
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
By Karen de Sá Mercury News
14 January 2004