It may not look like a school — a stucco-white building wedged between two roaring auto repair shops on Soquel Avenue ­— but last week it played the role of community educator for a gathering of citizens.

Barrios Unidos, a local anti-street violence organization, hosted a community education night on Sept. 25. A crowd of Santa Cruz and Watsonville residents packed the small room to listen to guest speakers Raquel Mariscal and Tracy Benson.

Mariscal is a senior consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and co-manager of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), and Benson is a staff member for the Community Justice Network for Youth.

The topic of the evening was a history and critique of reform in youth justice. The presentations emphasized the contrast between the conventional use of detention — a costly and arguably ineffective method of curtailing juvenile delinquency — and the more recent efforts to initiate closer collaboration between community, law enforcement and judicial administrators to provide a more adequate support network for youth at risk.

For Mariscal, a UCSC alumnus and long-time Watsonville resident, addressing the flaws of the youth justice system starts with a projector and scores of infograph slides.

“One of our core strategies is data,” Mariscal said. “Not based on myth or reaction to what’s happening, or media reports.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation focused on collecting more effective data over the years to identify the main weakness of the judicial processing system: the unnecessary detention of low-risk juvenile offenders.

“In the early 1990s, a federal court of appeals judge called it the ‘hidden closet’ of the juvenile and criminal justice system,” Mariscal said. “Which really attested to the fact that there was not much light shed on this system, despite the fact that there were half a million kids being detained on a yearly basis.”

Mariscal noted that one consequence of access to more comprehensive data was the discovery that increasing funding to improve youth detention facilities almost always led to probation departments installing more beds, which created little incentive for finding alternatives to detention.

JDAI also extends grants to 100 jurisdictions, including Santa Cruz, to pay for staff training, technical support and peer critique from other administrators. Mariscal said by focusing resources on processing instead of detention, these model sites reduced the population in their detention facilities by 41 percent.

But even in Santa Cruz, which Mariscal said has experienced a 60 percent decrease in the average day population of its juvenile hall, this progress is still criticized for not correcting the disproportionate number of Latinos and blacks in detention, which is regarded by judicial activists like Mariscal and Benson as one of the most fundamental flaws in the administration of youth justice.

“One might think we’ve done a pretty good job because there’s one, ten or fourteen kids in detention,” Benson said. “But if you actually peek in the doors and look at the halls, it’s mostly, if not all, Latino youth.”

To address this problem, Mariscal and Benson encouraged regular members of the community to actively work for better justice in their neighborhoods.

Attendees nodded their heads as Mariscal reminded them that until recent years, the Watsonville courthouse was located up in the forested hills of the northern part of the county, only accessible to many citizens by long bus rides that ate away at their workdays.

“The new court and library in Watsonville required years and years of negotiating to acquire,” Mariscal said.

Benson also stressed the importance of getting law enforcement agencies to cooperate with community leaders and activists, especially when it comes to acquiring the data needed to determine the course of judicial reform.

“Without a collaborative table, it’s very difficult to find out what’s happening inside the system to our kids,” Benson said. “If one of the stakeholders is not coming to the table with humility, and sharing power and transparency of data to show what’s happening, there’s really no way of determining where the problems are happening.”

Local and national activists have pushed for a more open dialogue between community leaders and justice officials, but a history of going it alone leaves some activists skeptical that collaboration will ever be achieved.

“Nobody’s coming to our community to save us,” said Executive Director of Barrios Unidos Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, who has spent 35 years working to stop street violence in Santa Cruz County.

But for younger activists like Benson who have seen their reform efforts blossom and start to bear fruit, the secret to reform is patience.

“We call it a marathon instead of a sprint,” Benson said.