Delegating Authority to Improve Juvenile Justice in California

In Judaism, congregants progress through the Torah by studying a weekly portion or Parsha, carrying a theme that facilitates reflection and broader conversation. The Torah portion titled Yitro, is rich with themes relevant to juvenile justice. Here, Moses and the Israelites stand before Mount Sinai, having escaped Egypt. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, joins him at Sinai and advises him to delegate authority through a system of judges. Later, God reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelite people.
In commemoration of Yitro, San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel (CSI) organized a Shabbat juvenile justice discussion on Saturday, February 2, titled Rethinking Juvenile Justice: Get Tough or Get Smart. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ross and USF Associate Professor Kimberly Richman moderated the discussion. Participants included:

CSI’s Rabbi Raphael opened the panel by noting Yitro’s special significance for juvenile justice. The juvenile justice system was established under a legal doctrine that delegated parental responsibilities to the state when they could not be satisfied by community caregivers. Over the years, the state has developed its own custodial facilities to serve high-risk youth offenders.

However, Dan Macallair recounted the ongoing troubled history of California’s juvenile correctional system, now called the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF). In this institutional system, youth cannot develop skills for community reintegration, because they are isolated from the very communities to which they will return. Violence and gangs have historically plagued the facilities. Conditions reached a tipping point in 2004, when the state entered a consent decree mandating improvement.
Former offender and community activist Felix Lucero offered thoughtful perspective on how juvenile offenders cannot be served well in an institutional setting. While at San Quentin, Mr. Lucero worked in the San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences, and Studies program (S.Q.U.I.R.E.S.). Many S.Q.U.I.R.E.S participants grew up in households lacking parental supervision, which sometimes bred feelings of shame and resentment that state institutions proved incapable of addressing. In contrast, community-based programs can provide the necessary structure and long-term support that youth need to succeed. He noted that juvenile offenders embody the needs common to all youth, no matter their background.
Mr. Macallair advocated for a reformed system of intervention built on local, individualized care, in which the state would play an oversight role, but delegate serving youth back to the communities. Fortunately, California’s juvenile system increasingly favors this individualized approach. Given the failure of the state to rehabilitate youth and an unrelated drop in youth crime, counties have begun to assume greater responsibility for serving their youth offenders. DJF housed approximately 10,000 youth in 1996, but now holds less than 800 youth.
Bruce Fisher explained how his agency finds worth in youth who many assume lack potential. Huckleberry serves the mission of sensible juvenile justice – to help youth, not punish them. Huckleberry’s Community Assessment and Referral Center (CARC) is a case management and intervention facility for youth arrested in San Francisco. CARC fosters collaboration between law enforcement, public health services, CBO’s, and other partnership groups. CARC Director Gavin O’Neill attributed CARC’s success to its restorative justice model and early intervention programming. He cited his own childhood history to denote the importance of personal relationships and creative opportunities in rehabilitation. Successful programs must develop case plans built around the individual, and facilitate participation across the community (e.g. schools, parents).
Overall, the panel found room for positive reflection as jurisdictions partner with CBOs to implement rehabilitative services. Juvenile justice has evolved from its first inception as a statewide oversight body to a provider of services, and now towards community responsibility. History has demonstrated the state is not equipped to address the parental needs of troubled youth. Each panelist reiterated the need for continued community involvement. Put simply, a delegation of authority is not to abdicate responsibility all together.  

Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)'s policy team and a Masters graduate in political science from San Francisco State University. His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

Updated: February 08 2018