Documentary critiques juvenile correctional system
on October 8, 2010
“I was arguing with a counselor,” Jake Newman, a young man in a Santa Clara County detention center, recalls in the new documentary Learning from Our Mistakes: Transforming Juvenile Justice in California, “I was mad. And I thought to myself, ‘Calm down. Don’t do this.’ The next day, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never done that before in my life.’”
The twenty-minute documentary, produced by the North Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, examines failures in the California juvenile justice system and explores alternative methods in juvenile rehabilitation being used across the country.
“The status quo for juvenile justice isn’t working, and it’s using up a lot of money,” said Sumayyah Waheed, director of the Baker center’s Books Not Bars, which produced the film to illustrate reforms that Waheed and her colleagues argue can work in the California system. Books Not Bars is one of four campaigns run by the Ella Baker Center, and is aimed specifically at supporting reform in California juvenile justice. “The film really shows that it is possible to make reforms,” Waheed said in a recent interview, “and start getting to a system that works.”
More young adults are imprisoned in California, the documentary declares, than in any other state in the nation. Three out of four young people who go through the state’s prison system are rearrested within three years. California’s juvenile justice system has been under fire for years for deficiencies and abuses to young people. In 2004, expert reports detailing shortcomings of the system were released and fueled massive reform in the way the state handles delinquent youths.
As part of its efforts at reform, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now implements what is called an “integrated behavior treatment model” in its juvenile detention facilities. This model promotes a holistic approach to try to address all of the needs of young people in the juvenile justice system. “We have successfully put into place about 85% of the policies and programs the reform calls for,” said Bill Sesa, an information officer for the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice. “The entire focus in California’s juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. The reform is looking at treatment.”
Learning from Our Mistakes highlights the Missouri model as one successful juvenile justice structure that could be implemented in California. The Missouri model is focused heavily on rehabilitation instead of punishment of delinquent young people. The model is centered largely around small group counseling and maintaining normalcy in participants’ lives to ease the reentry transition.
The film, which is critical of flaws in California’s juvenile justice system, also underscores examples of facilities using innovative correctional models to rehabilitate youth, such as California’s Santa Clara juvenile detention center, which employs the Missouri model.
“In Missouri, I would say there are several things that are the key ingredients,” Mark Steward, a former Missouri Division of Youth Services director who is credited with developing the model, says in the film. He lists those ingredients: “Staff, the environment, the number of kids you have in a group, and how they can feel safe enough to deal with these issues.”
The new documentary screened on Wednesday before an especially interested audience: a dozen College of Alameda students who are enrolled in a two-semester violence prevention certificate program. The program, now in its first year, seeks to teach best practices for violence prevention and is geared toward those already working in juvenile justice. “Often times, we get in the system and we don’t realize how we are hurting the system,” said lead instructor Crystallee Crain, who is also director of Heal the Streets, Ella Baker’s youth fellowship program. “I think it’s important for people already involved in juvenile justice work to have a perspective of reform.”
Debra Mendoza, an Alameda County deputy probation officer enrolled in the class, said she thought the documentary offered promising alternatives to current methods of youth correction. “There are settings that can protect the community, but might not necessarily look like jail,” Mendoza said. “I think we really need to be creative about ways to look out for the best interest of the child while also protecting the public.”
But Sesa said the discouraging data the film presents about the failures of California’s juvenile justice system reflect conditions prior to implementation of the new model. “There is a lot of research to document that the integrated behavior treatment model works,” Sesa said. “We looked at Missouri and a lot of places before we developed the integrated behavior treatment plan. We found that the model is probably better suited to the population we have.”
Still, Learning from Our Mistakes reflects skepticism that California’s juvenile justice system can be effective on its current track even amid reform. “It’s important to not just say you want reform, but to see that youth actually come out of the system and do well,” Waheed said. “The title ‘learning from our mistakes’ is not just about youth making mistakes. The hope is that the film will get policy makers to open their minds and not fall back on the same bad habits.”
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