SLO County Has Become a Testing Ground for Both Rehabilitation and Punishment of Teen Lawbreakers
BY STEVEN T. JONES
The faces of the stern prison guard and demanding drill sergeant are replacing that of the empathetic counselor as the ones confronting more and more of our troubled teens.
A solid majority of California voters approved of this "get tough" approach by supporting Proposition 21 earlier this month, causing more juveniles to be tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult prisons, removing most confidentiality protections of young lawbreakers, increasing punishment for gang-related felonies, and making probation more restrictive for young people.
And while SLO County has become home to many of the states tough discipline programs, it also has become an enclave for rehabilitation activists, even from within the criminal justice community.
Prop. 21 is just one element of a push in California to turn a tougher, less forgiving face to our children.
The California National Guard has stepped to the fore of our efforts to deal with wayward youths, placed there by tough-on-crime Gov. Gray Davis and his equally tough predecessor, Pete Wilson, the architect of Prop. 21.
Turning Point Academy, a military-style boot camp for juvenile offenders, is scheduled to open at Camp San Luis Obispo this fall, joining the Grizzly Academy and Angel Gate Academy in whipping kids into shape with push-ups, drilling, strict discipline, compulsory education, and the tightly regimented lifestyle of the soldier.
Meanwhile, the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility and other California Youth Authority institutions have over the last year been rocked by allegations of routinely harsh treatment of young wards.
Extensive investigations by the California inspector general, the Los Angeles Times, and others have prompted the resignations of top CYA officials, including director Gregorio Zermeno and El Paso de Robles superintendent Kate Thompson.
"In recent years, the agency's mission to rehabilitate and train wards of the state has been supplanted by a culture of punishment, control and, sometimes, brutality, the Times found in a wide-ranging review that included dozens of interviews and inspection of internal Youth Authority documents," read the Dec. 24, 1999, front-page story, the first of two lengthy parts.
San Luis Obispo County's chief probation officer, John Lum, has emerged as one of the state's leading critics of our get-tough approach to juvenile justice after last year announcing he would no longer recommend sending any local juveniles into the CYA.
Since then, he has broadened his attack to also target the crackdown of Prop. 21 and the growing use of the military as the agency of choice for punishing and rehabilitating children with behavioral problems.
"I'm damned angry about this issue," Lum said. "It is the wrong way to treat kids, and it can't continue."
John Lum and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges don't agree on much, with the former favoring sweeping criminal justice reforms and the latter a conservative supporter of being tough on criminals.
Yet both men were united in their opposition to Prop. 21, which they see as an unduly punitive and expensive approach to a juvenile crime problem that has only improved in recent years.
"The hard data show violent juvenile crime has been decreasing since 1994," said Hedges. "The facts are, workplace violence is down, violence in schools is down, violent criminal acts by juveniles are down."
Both blame the media for creating an impression with the public that juveniles are running amok and presenting terrible aberrations like the massacre at Columbine High School as if it were part of a growing trend.
"Crime of any degree is scary, and when you pump it up people get the impression that it's out of control in their community," Lum said.
That impression was also pushed by supporters of Prop. 21, whose well-financed campaign (supported mostly by huge corporations like Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Unocal, and Chevron) cast the complicated measure as a simple solution to our fears of angry young people.
"The average voter didn't even know what they were voting for," Lum said.
According to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office, overall juvenile crime numbers in the 90s peaked in 1997, when prosecutors handled 1,237 juvenile cases. It has fallen each of the last two years, with 951 cases in 1999, even as the population increases.
That decrease is part of a national trend of declining juvenile crime rates that began in 1994, a year when adult crime rates also began to decline, which experts have attributed to the booming economy and tough-on-crime laws that greatly increased incarceration rates.
Aggressive enforcement of drug laws does continue to bring juveniles into the criminal justice system. Department of Justice figures show that while juveniles arrests for violent crimes and property crimes each fell between 1993 and 1997, the number of juvenile arrests for drugs increased 82 percent.
Hedges emphasizes the cost of administering Prop. 21, calling it "an unfunded piece of legislation that is certainly going to have financial impacts on adult and juvenile detention facilities."
In fact, the California Legislative Analyst's Office placed the price tag for Prop. 21 at more than $1 billion for new facilities and more than $430 million in annual costs.
Lum believes the long-term costs could go even higher, noting that harshly punitive approaches to crime build resentments that can turn troubled teens into lifelong criminals, citing studies showing that juvenile offenders treated as adults are more likely to commit new crimes than those committed to juvenile justice programs focused on rehabilitation.
"We have a notion in this country that punishment is the deterrent and punishment is the way to get justice and restoration for the victims," Lum said. "But it's never worked.... This country continues to invest in the things that are most costly and least effective."
Beyond the lack of a pressing need to crack down on kids, Lum is also critical of our abandonment of the idea that troubled teens can be turned around and therefore deserve more rehabilitation, confidentiality, trust, and empathy than adults.
"We have got to watch the path we're going on, because to me it is very frightening where we're headed," Lum said.
In describing where we're headed, Lum invokes fascism and Nazi Germany, noting that the repressive police state is the logical endpoint of a system that ignores skyrocketing incarceration rates among young people, minorities, and others who don't hold political power.
While the dominant political trend has been to treat lawbreakers harshly, Lum has gone against the tide, expanding treatment programs at Juvenile Hall, working to turn part of the facility into a licensed group home with a focus on treating substance abuse, forcing his employees to treat their charges with respect, and shunning the CYA.
"As long as I'm around, that's the direction we're going to go," Lum said. "We aren't going to warehouse them or abuse them."
Lum's line in the sand on juvenile justice issues has generated enemies among county judges and his own probation officers, some of whom have launched aggressive smear campaigns against their boss, both with the media and the Board of Supervisors.
"Our goal should be prevention, instead of having all of our focus being after the crime," Lum said. "I don't know why, but we're not investing in our kids. We aren't listening to them."
Building Empathy at Juvenile Hall
Leonard Manzella believes in listening to the kids. He also wants to listen to the guards, to the police officers, to anyone with a role in juvenile justice. Only then can we fix what's wrong, he says.
Before becoming a psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, Manzella was a social worker, working mostly in correctional institutions around the country. And before that he was an actor.
Incorporating all of these roles, Manzella has created a program that uses psychodrama and role-playing to help guards better empathize with prisoners and, as a result, to minimize the damage that incarceration can do to those behind bars.
"The bottom line is you can't teach empathy or emotional intelligence," Manzella said, but you can place people in situations where they can learn these lessons themselves.
Manzella first began doing psychodramawhich involves role-playing in various scenarios as a means of creating understanding and empathyon the Central Coast when then-Sheriff Ed Williams invited him to work with jail inmates four years ago as a way of helping inmates deal with their problems before they are released.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of these people are getting out, and they're moving into our communities," Manzella said. "The public needs to understand that if we beat these people up and let them out, they'll be bitter. You treat people like animals, and they'll act like animals."
After the program was discontinued in the jail, Lum hired Manzella to work with the families of at-risk youth. Pleased with the program, Lum had the idea of doing a similar program for incoming probation officers. Manzella developed the program, which debuted last year.
It involved taking a group of probation officer cadets, those training to guard the kids at Juvenile Hall, and suddenly placing them under arrest during what they thought was going to be a routine day of training.
The dozen cadets were handcuffed, taken to Juvenile Hall, verbally abused, and subjected to the differing styles of three guards who each acted out different management techniques: a strict authoritarian, an ineffective nice guy, and the guard who was firm but treated them with respectful empathy.
As shown in Manzella's documentary film of the program"Walk the Talk: A Lesson in Empathy"the guards learned a powerful lesson about what it feels like to be detained and exposed to arbitrary abuses of authority and how that can build resentments in their young charges.
Too often, Manzella said, guards can act out their own personal issues and prejudices during what is often a difficult and emotionally trying job. But that loss of empathy only feeds the cycle of control and abuse that causes many juveniles to commit more crimes once they are released.
"The guards and the inmates often have very parallel upbringings. They are very tough people," Manzella said. "We need to help people deal with their issues, whether they're guards or inmates.... If we can make the prisons a more gentle place, we'll change society."
While the politically popular approach may be to get tough, Manzella said there is a growing awareness among those who run correctional facilities that more rehabilitation efforts need to take place during incarceration.
"It's being re-evaluated in the institutions," Manzella said of the punitive approach to corrections. "In the prisons and jails, they are realizing it's not working, even though politically, it seems like we're still in the Scared Straight, get-tough crackdown mode."
Manzella is using "Walk the Talk" to promote the program statewide. In the process, he is drawing support and rave reviews from even strict law-and-order types.
"Most peace officers know very little about the dynamics of their chosen profession before they start to actually work in the field. This type of training provides a viable, realistic means of not only understanding the dynamics of persons under restraint but the importance of communication and interaction to accomplish the goals of their jobs," wrote California Men's Colony warden William Duncan, who recommended Manzella "expand this training to all law enforcement agencies."
Manzella currently has a meeting scheduled with top California Department of Corrections officials about using his program statewide. He believes approaches like his are essential to reduce criminal recidivism and clean up abuses in institutions like the California Youth Authority.
Inside Our Youth Prisons
You can learn a lot about the California Youth Authority, and the concept of juvenile justice in California, by understanding two key statistics.
Half of all CYA wards will commit new crimes after being released. Such a high recidivism rate isn't from lenient punishments either, considering that for many crimes juveniles serve longer average sentences than their adult counterparts.
Half of all CYA wards are Latino, compared with just 14 percent who are white, illustrating the socioeconomic dynamics that underlie our state's juvenile justice system.
When we talk about our state's juvenile justice system, we are largely talking about offenders who are minorities, who were raised in poverty, and who will likely continue breaking laws unless something is done to instill in them a sense of hope, opportunity, and respect for the law.
At the El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility, SLO County's own youth prison, both the number of minorities and the recidivism rates are even higher than the CYA average.
Walking through the facility, it is striking how few white faces there are: of the 795 wards there on recent day, 428 were Hispanic and 231 were black, with just 73 white kids and 45 Asians.
And with generally younger wards than many of the other 10 CYA institutions, El Paso de Robles also has a higher than average recidivism rate: 67 percent. That means for every kid who turns his life around, two return to criminal activity.
Upon arrival, new wards are put through psychological evaluations and counseling sessions to determine their problems and needs, and then a program is established to help them develop and accomplish positive goals.
"We assess what his issues are and what he needs to deal with in the facility," said Josie Hayes, spokesperson for El Paso de Robles.
CYA is considered its own school district, setting a curriculum and teaching to standardized tests just like any other high school. Hayes touts the facility's vocational programs, designed to instill job skills in these young people, and the fact that wards can't just do their time and get out.
Unlike adult prisons, sentences in the CYA aren't fixed, but fluctuate based on progress, performance, and other issues taken into account by the Youthful Offender Parole Board.
"The wards here have to show progress," Hayes said.
So why does the program turn around only one kid out of three? Lum said many CYA employees try hard to reach the kids, but ultimately the culture of violence, control, and punishment counteracts the best intentions and efforts.
"They try hard, but that's not the real issue. The real issue is they are overwhelmed," Lum said. "The problem is really institutional."
The CYA has taken the tough-on-crime rhetoric to heart, switching to a more punishment-focused approach in recent years. In 1997 the agency even dropped the "Youth Training School" name attached to many of its facilities, switching to the more appropriate "Correctional Facility" moniker. To Lum, it was a telling switch.
"If we treat them brutally in the institutions or just warehouse them, why should we be surprised when they come out and recommit?" Lum said.
He has watched San Luis Obispo juveniles emerge from CYA institutions with stridently racist attitudes, with an increased propensity toward violence, and with the angry bitterness that comes from being victimizedall of which many learn inside.
"At the CYA they may have to abuse or be abused to survive, and then we're surprised they don't get better," said Lum, whose foster son is a ward at the CYA facility in Chino, known as "The Rock."
Hayes wouldn't talk about the controversy that forced her boss from her job or about alleged disciplinary tactics, revealed by the L.A. Times, that kept wards in handcuffs for days on end, periodically forced to kneel on a gymnasium floor until their legs went numb, and kicked or shaken awake through the night for hourly "cuff checks."
But she did say that abuse of wards is not tolerated and that "a ward has an opportunity, if he feels like he's been wronged in any way, to file a grievance."
"We've looked at our policies. Other agencies have looked at our policies. And we address areas when we see problems," Hayes said, noting, "We've had a lot of press attention."
Yet the culture of violence and intimidation can come as much from other wards as CYA officials. CYA Paso has open dorms, and the interaction among wards is constant, something that Hayes says requires vigilance from staff: "There's some kind of problem every day."
Armando is a 20-year-old ward who has been at El Paso de Robles for two and a half years, coming from Ventura County where he was involved with gangs.
He is cheerful and engaged when giving a tour of the Wild Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Center he helps operate at the facility, and he dutifully speaks of the lessons he's learned and how he's anxious for a fresh start. Armando wants to study architectural engineering at Cal Poly.
But he also explains that life can be tough inside, with guards and wards often trying assert their control. Being Latino, Armando said, he had an easier time than many white kids, who often find themselves with few allies and more easily abused.
"Worrying about the other people is the hardest thing. Some people want to be predators and push you to see what you're made of," Armando said. "They can sense the weakness in you, and they'll pressure you."
Danny, 22, hopes to be released from CYA next month, having served six years for his violent gang activity. He is respectful and well-spoken as he gives a tour of the Cayucos Pre-Parole Dorm. But he wasn't always that way.
"When I first got here, I didn't listen to staff and got written up by staff a lot, and there were times I got in fights," Danny said.
Danny, Armando, and other wards all say Paso has a tough reputation, so many of the kids confront their fears by acting tough: "When you walk in you put up a big front to be tough, to say I ain't the guy to mess with," Danny said.
Hayes said wards are expected to be courteous with each other and staff, which doesn't tolerate things like "mad dogging," those hard, taunting stares intended to be challenges.
"The negativeness, you have to confront it, because it'll turn into something else," she said.
Drilling Discipline Into Kids
While CYA is the prison system for juvenile offenders, the stop of last resort for frequent or violent offenders, California has turned to the military for help with kids who are just starting to exhibit problems.
In his budget, Gov. Davis allocated an extra $9 million to the National Guard to establish the Turning Point Academy at Camp San Luis Obispo, which will be modeled on the Grizzly Academy that has been successfully operated there for nearly four years.
Lum sees this trend as a dangerous one. While some kids may truly be helped by the military-style camps, Lum said instilling military values in wayward youths is troubling and not a long-term solution to the underlying problems that cause crime.
"What does teaching kids to parade around with guns have to do with rehabilitation?" questions Lum, referring to the military drilling that is a part of these camps.
Juvenile boot camps have become "a dumping ground for young Latinos," Lum says, with the military taking over the role that schools and community leaders should be playing in offering more opportunities in impoverished rural and inner city areas.
Many juveniles who are acting out and committing crimes need counselors who are trained and knowledgeable in helping kids process and deal with issues of violence, neglect, powerlessness, substance abuse, and many of the other traits common to juvenile offenders.
"What are they running youth programs for? They have no experience running youth programs. It'll blow up in their face," Lum predicted.
Yet Maj. Bruce Irvin, who runs Grizzly Academy, counters that the U.S. military has been turning troubled teens into responsible, self-reliant adults "for about 200 years."
"I think the military brings teamwork, camaraderie, and self-discipline. There are a lot of good attributes the military brings," said Irvin, a West Point graduate, adding, "I don't believe Mr. Lum ever served in the military."
Col. Dennis Heintz, the director of youth programs for the California National Guard, is familiar with Lum's perspective on juvenile camps, and he lets out an exasperated sigh when Lum's name comes up.
"He is under the impression that the military should not be involved in juvenile justice issues," Heintz said. "But it is our experience that the military will bring mentoring, discipline, and structure that can reach these kids."
Irvin doesn't like the term "boot camp," seeing Grizzly Academy more like a boarding school with a military focus. The program is free to participants, most of whom come from poor families. Participation is voluntary and open only to those who haven't committed any felonies and who aren't on probation or parole.
Grizzly Academy includes a five-and-a-half-month residential program, where cadets live in barracks, go through military-style drilling and training, and go to school. After that, cadets return to their communities and work with a mentor for one year.
Irvin said the program boasts an 81 percent success rate, meaning that by the end of the mentoring portion of the program, 81 percent of the cadets are either employed, in school, or in the military.
"About 12 percent go into the military, but we aren't recruiting for the military. We want them to be successful citizens," Irvin said.
Yet the academy's oft-cited success rate doesn't include those who are kicked out or drop out. At Grizzly Academy, more than one-third of the cadets leave the program.
"I think the volunteer aspect is important," Irvin said. "They are volunteering to turn their lives around."
Heintz said Turning Point Academy will be made up mostly of kids who have committed an offense that triggers an automatic expulsion from schoolsuch as bringing a weapon onto campusbut who don't have any kind of serious criminal history.
"This is a preventive issue rather than a discipline model," Heintz said. "This is to catch them before they get into the whole continuum of criminality."
"We hold them accountable," Irvin said. "It's called tough love."
Yet Lum said toughness is all many of these kids have known throughout their lives: tough parents, tough cops, tough streets. He worries that the military approach of breaking people down isn't what these kids need, but Irvin said the program is not abusive.
"The cadre are there to teach and train," Irvin said. "There is no yelling or screaming at this point in the program."
"The most severe thing we do to these kids is ask them to do push-ups," Heintz said.
Dustin Miller, a 19-year-old cadet from Arroyo Grande, got mixed up with drugs and left home four years ago. When he recently tried to renew contact with his father, the two decided the Grizzly Academy was what Miller needed.
"I was looking to correct my life. I wanted to get back in his good graces. This whole thing is out of respect for him," Miller said, standing at attention, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I've been gung-ho from the beginning."
Miller most appreciates the structure and discipline of the camp, both of which he said he lacked growing up in a household with a largely absent father.
Cadet Kalea Prickard, an 18-year-old from Atascadero, didn't exude Miller's high level of military-style "gung-ho," admitting the militarism is "kinda weird. But it does intimidate us."
"It's taught us a lot of discipline and respect for elders," she said.
Prickard came here because "I was kind of having too much fun in high school" and had failed two classes, but enrolling in Grizzly Academy will allow her to get her high school diploma on schedule.
Although she said, "I think it will help a lot," Prickard couldn't say exactly how. And she isn't sure exactly what she wants to do next. But for now, she said, Grizzly Academy is at least keeping her busy.
"Instead of writing letters," Prickard said, "now I shine my boots or clean the barracks."
In looking to the future, Lum said, it is helpful to look to the past. In particular, he points to "The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society," an extensive study then-President Lyndon Johnson commissioned in 1965.
"It is as applicable today as it was then," Lum said. "In fact, we wouldn't have many of the problems we do today if we'd followed the recommendations then."
Most of the study's seven main recommendations deal with crime prevention, developing more techniques than just incarceration for dealing with criminals, improving law enforcement practices, eliminating injustices in order to foster respect for the law, and placing the responsibility for criminal justice on "individual citizens, civic and business organizations, religious institutions, and all levels of government." None of the recommendations include more toughness or harsher sentences.
"First, society must seek to prevent crime before it happens by assuring all Americans a stake in the benefits and responsibilities of American life, by strengthening law enforcement, and by reducing criminal opportunities," it read.
Yet this is not 1965. Since then, juveniles have become much more violent and at earlier ages, as crime statistics show. And many of those who support getting tougher on criminals say they are simply reacting to the times in which we live.
District Attorney Gerald Shea supported Prop. 21. He believes it will have a minimal impact on most juvenile cases but will hold juveniles more accountable for the most serious crimes, like rape and murder.
"I was a supporter because I think more public access in more serious cases was something the public needed to have, knowing what sentences were handed down in serious cases," Shea said.
Deputy District Attorney Dan Hilford, who handles many juvenile cases, said there are juveniles who are violent and incorrigible, and cracking down on them is appropriate.
"Some of those people are creating a lot of destruction and human misery," Hilford said.
"I think that this is a reaction, that people have noticed juvenile crime is not where it should be," Shea said, noting the juvenile crime rates have not dropped as sharply as adult crime rates, which are now are at mid-60s levels.
Lum agrees Prop. 21 is a reaction to heinous tales of violent youths. But he said it is also reactionary, an emotional response to a complex problem that demands more fundamental solutions.
"The biggest concern for me is the powerfully negative message Prop. 21 sends about young people," Lum said. "Shouldn't Prop. 21, if it's really effective, be a deterrent to these kids? But it isn't."
"For a lot of people being punished, it ain't no big deal. They've been punished their whole lives," Lum said. "You can't scare these kids."
Yet if you can reach them in some fundamental way that helps them turn around their lives, you've not only saved them, but you've also saved the taxpayers moneyand saved someone else from being victimized in the future.
"This is not about hugging a thug," Manzella said. "This is about making society a safer place. This beating people up doesn't work, and it will come back to haunt us."
Or as Lum put it: "Prevention equals public safety."
Prevention, though, is no easy task, not nearly as easy as getting tough. Prevention, to people like Lum, means fundamentally rethinking how we as a society raise our children.
"We don't have the will to do what needs to be done," Lum said.
What needs to be done, according to Lum, are things like improving educational and economic opportunities in poor areas, creating better support services for at-risk children, and emphasizing rehabilitation instead of punishment for lawbreakers. And it means rediscovering the concepts of mercy and compassion.
Such long-term, big-picture types of solutions have increasingly fallen out of favor with the voting masses, who have come to expect the instant and easy solutions to complex problems that many politicians promise.
"The real seed of this whole problem is domestic violence and child abuse," Manzella said, digging even deeper to point to the economic inequities that often contribute to violence in the home.
Manzella thinks he understands why voters approved Prop. 21: It was easy, a quick fix to a complicated problem that helps us feel safe, to feel like we're doing something, thus absolving us of responsibility for the underlying problems of poverty, racism, and economic inequities.
"When you can blame people, you don't have to take responsibility," Manzella said. "This country has everybody burning the candle at both ends, so we can't even think about these problems. But if we were encouraged to think and deal with these problems, we would find the solutions." Æ
New Times staff writer Steven T. Jones should probably be locked up.