By Kathryn Doorey

It’s an early Friday evening in downtown Santa Cruz. The sun is setting, casting an eerie glow on a maroon-colored building tucked away on a busy Santa Cruz street.

The only proof of life inside is a fluorescent glow casting through the front glass door; inside, an abundance of Mexican cultural decorations are splashed about the room, with illuminating frog-green walls and couches sporadically placed against them. A faint smell of incense wafts from an adjacent, smaller room, holding a group of teens inside.

This facility is Barrios Unidos, an evening center for Latino youth that developed over 25 years ago, designed as an alternative to juvenile incarceration.

Unidos is just one of the many community-based programs that have formed in an effort to minimize the number of juveniles placed in Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall.

The arena of juvenile crime has been a complex issue for Santa Cruz County. Juvenile incarceration poses an array of economic, political and moral problems. Teens, who are arrested without parental or outside support, in addition to the continual exposure to other juveniles in juvenile hall, often adopt a life of criminal activity. Counties are forced to spend massive amounts of money on prison systems, sometimes topping what is spent on schools. Crime rates skyrocket, putting pressure on city systems to detain kids rather than help them.

But due to over a decade of passionate support and coordination from dedicated Santa Cruz staff and community, and an all-encompassing county vision, the department has witnessed immense change.

*The Turnaround* “In the mid-‘90s, [the juvenile justice system] was just as bad as anywhere else. The [juvenile hall] staff was terrified of half the kids,” said Mardi Wormhoudt, who has worked as a former county supervisor for 12 years and city council member for nine. “The staff divided kids by what they thought their gang affiliations were. People talked about the kids there as if they were hardened criminals.”

And most of the kids were repeat offenders, with jail serving as a sort of intermediate between the offenses.

Wormhoudt continued, “The system was collapsing of its own weight. We recognized this real opportunity for change.”

Change is exactly what happened, but from an unlikely series of events. In the early ’90s, the Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall in Felton, housing on average over 60 youths and reaching maximum capacity weekly, was unable to get a grant to enlarge the facility. This forced the county to develop innovative ways to not only decrease the number of youth in the juvenile hall, but explore alternatives to juvenile incarceration as well.

*A Foundation, An Initiative, A Result* What followed was a series of community-based and led programs, each offering healthy alternatives to imprisonment.

“These programs allow youth to have more education and rehabilitation instead of being punished, locked up, and isolated,” said Alexandra Parrott, a community studies major at UC Santa Cruz.

Parrott has devoted her studies to the topic of juvenile justice. “[In these programs] the youth spend their time in a positive environment, with people who teach them encouraging life skills,” she said.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national organization devoted to supporting families and children, developed the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). The initiative focuses mainly on reforming the county’s existing approach to jailing youth.

“We now have an objective criteria which has really reduced unnecessary confinement,” said Fernando Giraldo, assistant juvenile division director of the probation department. “We are using interventions, cognitive behavioral programs, that are based on research, and asking our partners to do the same. People tend to say ‘this worked for me when I was a kid’, but it doesn’t work that way.”

According to the JDAI guidelines, juveniles are only kept in jail if they are a significant threat to the community or themselves; those not kept in jail are put into alternative after-school programs, and family and community involvement takes a front seat in the minor’s life.

Since Santa Cruz County adopted the JDAI several years ago, juvenile incarceration has declined significantly; most importantly, juvenile crime rates have dropped as well.

“The vast majority of youth will mess up once or twice, and never mess up again,” said Laura Garnette, director of juvenile probation in Santa Cruz.

Garnette screens every juvenile case before the district attorney, and strongly believes that the new system’s strengths lie in their holistic approach.

“Most adolescents do a lot of things they wish they hadn’t and if all adolescents were held under the same level of [legal] scrutiny, they probably wouldn’t make it,” Garnette said.

*Bearing Witness to Great Change* Garnette spoke to CHP about one of her very first cases after the initiative was put into action. A 14-year-old boy broke into the washing machines at Brookdale Lodge, stealing all the change. Not only was it a petty crime, but also it caused major problems for the residents who were without a place to wash their clothes for a good deal of time.

“The young man and the owner were relatively close, and they hadn’t spoken since the crime had occurred,” she explained. “When they came together, to hear [from the owner] how much he cared about [the boy], and how disappointed he was with him, and then to hear how it affected other people just in ways that kids don’t think about, that just makes a tremendous impact on kids.”

Unfortunately, the justice system isn’t as effective. “Usually, with the traditional justice system, you don’t look at each other, you look at the ground, you’re both represented by attorneys. [Both the boy and the owner] came in like that, but left hugging and crying. The young man ended up doing some carpentry work for the owner, and repaired the washers,” she said.

As the Casey Foundation website states, “The JDAI was designed to support the Casey Foundation’s vision that all youth involved in the juvenile justice system have opportunities to develop into healthy, productive adults. After more than a decade of innovation and replication, JDAI is one of the nation’s most effective, influential, and widespread juvenile justice system reform initiatives.”

Over 40 states have adopted the JDAI, with cities like Chicago, Portland and Santa Cruz witnessing the most change from the program. From 1997 to 2005, the Santa Cruz Juvenile Hall daily population rate dropped 65 percent. Over the same timespan, Barrios Unidos reduced the average minority population in juvenile hall over 17 percent.

*Barrios Unidos: A Community Opportunity* Barrios Unidos has become one of the county’s most valuable programs, due to the organization’s simultaneous focus on gang and violence prevention and intervention, parental involvement, and cultural competence.

“Barrios Unidos is an amazing program,” Garnette said. “They have created a place where kids naturally want to be. They work great with the Latino population, which is way overrepresented in the justice system in Santa Cruz.”

Barrios Unidos coordinator David Beaudry said that the program has an artistic and spiritual focus.

“We believe the arts are a path to peace,” he said. “We focus on healing for the whole family … using spiritual and cultural roots. There is no specific spirituality pushed, we just want them to show what they’re thankful for.”

For some of the youth, this can be very difficult. Beaudry added that many of the kids are runaways. There is usually drug addiction, mental health issues, absent or busy families. Gang affiliations can sometimes threaten the kids’ lives once they leave the program renewed.

“A lot of these kids left their childhood behind,” Beaudry said. “We try and bring some of that back. [My goal here is] to try to turn [their lives] around before it goes much further, that is what I care most about. It’s about being in the tiniest spot to make a difference in their lives.”

Barrios Unidos also prides itself on a family focus, getting parents involved as much as possible during the youth’s rehabilitation.

“It’s incredible that they [run the program] in such a natural, pro-social, supportive, strength-based way, in the way that the justice system really shouldn’t be doing it necessarily,” Garnette added. “If you can get that level of support in the community where then that kid and family have that connection once they’re not with our system, isn’t that such a better option?”

As community studies major Emily Lehr-Anning stated, “In most juvenile justice cases, most decision are made within the courts, without asking the family what’s best for the kids. It makes a difference in a lot of kids’ lives if they are able to keep in contact with their parents.”

*UCSC Students Hop On Board* With Santa Cruz having the added bonus of university life, it was only a matter of time before UCSC students began their involvement with such a community-based issue. Last spring, the community studies department adopted a field study class called New Vistas in Juvenile Justice. Assistant Chief Probation Officer Scott McDonald initiated the class, with Wormhoudt as the professor.

“Having Mardi teach a class where she understands county government so well and the university so well, and can make those connections, is really great,” Garnette said.

The class is to be offered again this winter, and previous students of the class are overwhelmingly supportive of the focus and rehabilitative work of the class.

UCSC alumna Cynthia Chase, supervising deputy probation officer, said, “The community studies department really fits with the mission that probation connections are really powerful and valuable educationally.”

In addition to the community studies class, many UCSC students involved with the class later go on to work with the department as a career, making community reform a permanent part of their everyday lives.

“Over two-thirds of our [probation department] staff has come from UCSC,” Garnette said.

*How Far We’ve Come* While the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Justice Departments have seen commendable change and reformed a once deteriorating system, there is still work to be done.

“[It’s easy to be] overwhelmed by these huge, broken systems. You can’t fix the problems by just fixing the system, because racism and classism in this country, the overrepresentation of minorities, will continue to be a huge problem,” Wormhoudt said.

But by starting with the young, and giving them another chance, it’s surely a first step to such an overwhelming issue.

As Garnette added, “I am a firm believer that a lot of helping troubled kids is helping them get to the place where they outgrow a lot of their angst and errant behavior. It’s really about connecting them to something very meaningful.”

With facilities like Barrios Unidos that nurture artistic expression and spiritual and familial development, these youth are given one more chance other than a life behind bars.