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County supervisors hear ideas on probation system reform

REGION — The county Board of Supervisors today discussed the future of adult and juvenile probation, receiving input from national experts on innovative methods to help people transition out of the system while also keeping communities safe.

Board members took no formal action during the nearly five-hour conference, held via teleconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said Tuesday’s meeting was a chance to “embrace tremendous opportunities for reform” and provide a network of support to young people.

“We want to look at new skills sets, training and take a holistic approach to what we’re doing,” he added.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer called the conference informative and helpful. “There’s no question we have a crisis in our justice system,” she said. “We have an opportunity to address the root causes of that crisis.”

Fletcher and other supervisors have highlighted criminal justice as part of a package of major reforms, known as “Framework for The Future.”

Scott Huizar, deputy chief at the county Probation Department, told supervisors on Tuesday that juvenile arrest rates have significantly declined, 79% over a 10-year period. As of last week, 783 young people were on probation, with 155 young people detained in county facilities as of Monday night.

Since April 2017, the Probation Department shifted from a correctional model to one based on positive youth development, Huizar said. The goal is to help young people “not only exit the justice system, but reach their full potential,” he said.

Huizar said the department is working on improving living conditions for those in juvenile facilities, and better working conditions for employees.

Cesar Escuro, the county’s interim chief probation officer, said those paying their debt to society may have needs his department can’t meet — such as housing, education and employment — so it’s important to link them to services.

Escuro said his department will also conduct “listening sessions” and seek input from the community. “Probation is not static, and requires review,” he added.

David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform in Oakland, said there has been a decline in youth incarcerations, but the number “should still startle us.”

For example, Black youth are five times as likely to be detained as white youth, according to one study, said Muhammad, who also worked as a deputy probation officer in New York City.

The juvenile justice court system, which began in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois, is now “ineffective, harmful and excessively expensive,” Muhammed said. Young people in the justice system generally face poor school outcomes, and have a greater chance of being incarcerated as adults, he added.

There are ways to reform that system, Muhammad said, including shortening the length of supervision, eliminating more jail time based on technical violations, and incentivizing youth achievement.

Muhammad cited reform success stories, such as Wayne County, Michigan, which has community-led system for offenders; Missouri, which offers home-like facilities for youth offenders; and Los Angeles County, which closed five juvenile camps and added 10 people to a juvenile justice coordinating council.

Muhammad said that when young offenders need to have a positive relationship with an adult, “that is the most transformative aspect.”

Clinton Lacey, director of Youth Rehabilitation Services for Washington, D.C., said that if the first-wave juvenile justice was a punitive era, the second is a “kinder, gentler” approach, centered on families and communities.

“When we look at the history of juvenile justice in this country, we can see that it has evolved,” Lacey said.

Even though some youth offenders are placed in shackles or solitary confinement in certain parts of the United States, many reforms have taken place, including education in facilities and providing mental health services, said Lacey, who also served as a deputy commissioner in New York City.

One way to improve case loads for probation officers is to put low/medium-risk clients on monthly reporting program, said Vincent Shiraldi, a senior researcher at Columbia University and founder of the Justice Policy Institute.

He also suggested that probation offices should be moved into neighborhoods. “People should be held accountable for their actions, but should also have opportunities that ultimately result in safer communities,” Shiraldi added.

Along with ways to improve the probation system, supervisors received an update on a new facility to house young offenders from Sandy McBrayer, CEO of the San Diego-based Children’s Initiative, which is working with the county.

McBrayer said the first phase of a youth transition campus in Kearny Mesa will feature 96 beds, vocational training, indoor/outdoor recreation, a garden, a separate dining hall and a staff gym. The facility is scheduled to open this October.

The conference also included information on the search for a new county chief probation officer. Adolfo Gonzales, who held the job since 2016, left in January for the same position in Los Angeles County.

Supervisor Nora Vargas said she and her colleagues are excited about the search process, and “want to make sure this is community-based.”

The recruitment process started last month and will close on March 7, said Vargas, who added that a panel will conduct interviews with applicants. Supervisors will then interview qualified applicants on April 6.

Supervisor Jim Desmond was absent from the conference because of a family health situation, Fletcher said.

“We wish him the best during this challenging time,” Fletcher added.

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