Sonoma County reviewing its juvenile hall and other criminal justice programs for youth

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Sonoma County has begun a yearlong review of its juvenile hall and other criminal justice programs for youth that could change how it spends money on incarceration and rehabilitation programs for delinquent children.

Locally and nationally, juvenile arrest and detention rates have declined dramatically over the last two decades. At Sonoma County’s juvenile hall, more than 65% of the 140 beds at its campus in the Valley of the Moon remain empty on an average day.

Those trends, combined with research showing that programs that keep kids at home and out of jails can be more successful, led the county to apply for a federal grant for an outside analysis on the effectiveness of the county’s programs starting at the point a child is arrested.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said he hopes the review will help the county determine whether it can reduce the amount of money spent on incarcerating youth and focus resources where they’re most effective rehabilitating children.

“We’ve been successful in reducing overall numbers of juveniles on supervision, especially institutionalized supervision, which has allowed us to look at things differently,” Rabbitt said. “The grant will help us make sure we’re doing the best job possible for the youth we’re dealing with to make sure they get on that good path going forward.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the review will be conducted by the New York-based Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit that develops research-based strategies to improve public safety. Sonoma County applied for the grant.

Nina Salomon, deputy program director for the justice center, said she and two other staff members will conduct the review, which will analyze the county’s entire juvenile justice system from the point a child is arrested to the variety of programs serving troubled youth. They will interview people throughout county government, as well as families and their children who have been involved in the juvenile justice system.

“We’re trying to do a broad look at the entire system to see how children are coming into the system and for what offenses. Are they matched with the right supervision level and matched with services and are those services effective?” Salomon said.

In Sonoma County, incarcerated children are held at the Los Guilicos juvenile hall or sent to the probation camp, a 24-bed program in the countryside north of Forestville with vocational training. The average length of stay for youth in juvenile hall was 107 days at a cost of $292.77 per day per child, according to 2017 figures.

The annual budget for Sonoma County’s juvenile hall is about $15.5 million. Five of the probation department’s 287 positions are vacant because of the declining population in juvenile hall, according to the county’s 2018-2019 adopted budget report.

David Koch, the county’s probation chief, said the county already diverts about 70% of juvenile offenders away from detention toward programs that allow them to stay at home or enter specialized programs.

But last fall the county applied to take part in the examination of its juvenile justice programs in order to bring in experts who can help to improve screening procedures that identify key needs for each youth, such as mental health or trauma services, to fine-tune data collection and gain insight from other jurisdictions.

“We have a high-functioning and well-run juvenile justice program now, but we’re always open to examining our practices,” Koch said. “Can we further improve outcomes of poor youth and their families who find themselves in the delinquency system?”

Across California, juvenile arrests have plummeted over the last three decades and millennial youth have the lowest arrest rates yet on record, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco based nonprofit.

There were 50% fewer children in juvenile halls in 2016 compared with 1990. In 2017, 65% of the beds at the state’s juvenile detention centers and probation camps were empty — reflecting the trend in Sonoma County.

Crime rates are down across all ages, and society’s views on juvenile delinquency have shifted away from punitive programs toward rehabilitation. Schools are increasingly dealing with disruptions without calling police.

In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he plans to shift the state’s juvenile justice division away from the state’s corrections department and have it be supervised by the state’s Health and Human Services Agency — a move that would put California in line with the majority of other states.

Counties across California are grappling with what to do as increasing numbers of juvenile hall beds remain empty.

Some counties are opting to close local juvenile halls and send children elsewhere. On the North Coast, Lake County closed its juvenile hall in 2015 and now sends incarcerated youth to Tehama County.

Mendocino County has considered closing its juvenile hall and sending children to other county facilities, a proposal criticized last year by a local grand jury as “cost-driven and lacking in concern for (children’s) welfare in terms of separation and isolation from family, school and local support services that are essential to their successful rehabilitation.”

San Francisco is considering a plan to close its youth detention facility by the end of 2021 and has convened a working group to evaluate alternative programs to incarceration.

On Thursday, Salomon held a first meeting with a local task force that will provide input for their research. The other members include Koch, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Gnoss, representatives from the Public Defender and District Attorney offices as well as the county’s education and behavioral health departments.

Researchers will provide periodic reports to the public, with a final report expected early next year.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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