By Kathryn Doorey

A national spotlight hit Santa Cruz County last month, shedding light on the county’s unique juvenile delinquent programs and systems.

A document put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, titled Beyond Detention: System Transformation through Juvenile Detention Reform, examines trends after the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) was put into action 15 years ago.

“We’re aimed at reducing unnecessary detention as a response to juvenile crime,” said Scott MacDonald, assistant chief probation officer of Santa Cruz County. “It is a mandate to take the least restrictive action. What Santa Cruz has shown is we can dramatically reduce our detention without a backlash of public safety.”

The JDAI initiative focuses on minimizing the number of teens housed in juvenile halls. Though there are over 20 different states that follow the JDAI, “Santa Cruz has been a model site, one of the stars,” said David Steinhart, an attorney and director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program in Marin County. “ Even though [Santa Cruz] is a small community, it reflects the tensions you see all over the country—the racial mixes, for example.”

Since the growth of Santa Cruz County’s extensive juvenile programs over the last four years, the city has seen a steady decrease in juvenile offenses. According to the report, Beyond Detention, juvenile arrests have declined in the county from 1996-2005 by 42 percent, and juvenile detention rates have dropped by 65 percent. Much of this is due to the program’s reliance on community involvement. “When we rely less on incarceration, we build a strong alliance with community providers,” McDonald said.

Beyond Detention explains how the Santa Cruz County Probation Department emphasizes connections between justice-involved youth and community programs. One of the community-based programs is an internship course offered through UC Santa Cruz’s community studies department called New Vistas in Juvenile Justice. The internship allows students to learn about the reform efforts through on-site work with juveniles.

“These [juveniles] are kids who have never stepped foot on this campus, don’t even know what higher learner is about,” MacDonald said. “[UCSC students] tutor, mentor, and take part in a variety of things to assist young people. The students become models for them.”

The financial advantages are just one more reason the program has become a countywide success.

“Not only is it a good thing for the community, it’s cost-effective. To keep kids locked up costs money,” MacDonald said.

Mardi Wormhoudt, UCSC community studies professor, believes that Santa Cruz has successfully turned around what seems like a national issue of dependence on imprisonment.

“A decade ago, the Probation Department wanted to enlarge Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall,” she said. “No matter how many beds you build, you will manage to fill them. Luckily, we did not get the grant.” In the late 90s, Santa Cruz’s Juvenile Hall managed anywhere between 42 to 60 kids. Now, it averages around 20.

“There are still issues that need to be addressed,” City Councilmember Mike Rotkin said. “But compared to [the rest of[ the country, we have made huge strides. Like all bureaucracies, it is very difficult to change things. But they have really made a commitment to change this problem.”

Out of the 20 sites that have adopted JDAI, more than two-thirds reported excellent outcomes. With the help of major city involvement, the hope is to utilize these programs in as many cities as possible.

“Any community can do it,” Wormhoudt said. “It just involves a political will, a shift of the paradigm.”