Dreams Beyond Bars Fellows gathered at the California Ballroom in February to present their report on community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. The fellows hope to spread their initiative throughout the state. Photo courtesy of CURYJ.

Dream Beyond Bars report offers a new way to study the effects of youth incarceration

on April 5, 2019

About two years ago, when Xochtil Larios was in Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro, she decided to do more than just participate in classes and programs. “I didn’t feel like it was enough for me. I felt like the girls in there deserved better,” she said. During a session on vision boarding, Larios met staff members from Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), an Oakland nonprofit that works to empower young people affected by the criminal justice system.

At CURYJ, young people use restorative justice practices to address issues of violence in their communities and to learn how to better communicate to resolve conflicts. Restorative justice is based on the idea that giving people the tools to reconcile is a better form of rehabilitation than a focus on punishment and incarceration. In Juvenile Hall, CURYJ builds relationships with young people in order to offer them support when they are released. The nonprofit also hires formerly incarcerated youth to lead their organizing efforts.

Larios’ leadership role caught the staffers’ attention—she emceed events, coordinated activities and helped design artwork for programs. CURYJ staff told Larios that once she got out of the hall, they wanted her to come work with them. At first, Larios, who is now 19, was skeptical. She said getting a job doing the work she cared about seemed a little too good to be true. But the more she talked with the CURYJ staff, the more she felt like they valued her voice. “They’re not acting like they’re too good for us,” she recalled. Over the next few months, she kept seeing them come back to juvenile hall—at a Cinco de Mayo event, at a resource fair.

When Larios was released in 2017, she found a spot in a transitional housing program and started working at CURYJ. Now, she’s the youth justice program associate for the group, and she’s on the other side of the juvenile justice system, going into the juvenile hall in San Leandro to recruit other young people to advocate for alternatives to youth incarceration. These include restorative justice practices and providing support services through community organizations.

“A lot of the youth don’t have the ability to find their voice. I was like that,” Larios said. “But I found my voice and I got supported in that by CURYJ going inside and giving me an opportunity when I got out.”

Over the last few months, one of her main projects has been working with other young adults on what they call the “Dream Beyond Bars Report”—a study chronicling the effects of incarceration on the lives of young people and their families.  The report, which is the culmination of 18 months of work, took an innovative approach, using “participant action research.” That means that, rather than relying on criminal justice experts, they focused their research on talking to other young people in the criminal justice system and their family members. “If we are the one going through the stressors and going through the tragedies, then we are the experts and we have solutions to these problems,” Larios said.

The report is a collaboration between CURYJ and Urban Peace Movement (UPM), another Oakland nonprofit. Larios and the other researchers, called Dream Beyond Bars fellows, are all between ages 17 and 25 and have been involved with the criminal justice system, often having spent time in incarceration.

The fellows distributed surveys to families to learn how incarceration affected relationships and how parents were coping with separation from their children. They organized town hall meetings at which panels of formerly incarcerated young people shared their experiences with public officials like Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. They conducted focus groups with formerly incarcerated youth at which they discussed the effects of being labeled as criminals at a young age.

Larios also serves as the youth commissioner on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission of Alameda County. That’s how she met Hayden Beaulieu, another Dream Beyond Bars fellow. At the age of 15, Beaulieu said, he was charged as an adult in Arizona and sent to an adult prison. When he was released, he came to Oakland. When the two of them met at the commission meeting, Larios said she could tell that Beaulieu—now 18 years old—was “hungry” to do the work that CURYJ does. She drove him to their offices that day and Beaulieu started volunteering right away. In addition, he recently started a paid internship at New Door Ventures, a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides job training and skills to youth between the ages of 16 and 24.

Beaulieu said that formerly-incarcerated young people are too often written off by the public. “They’ll see that person’s actions, they’ll see that person’s file, but they won’t see them as a person,” he said. “They won’t see that they have potential to do good things.”

The point of doing participant action research was to highlight those voices and stories, Beaulieu said. Altogether, the fellows’ report includes responses from about 200 survey takers, as well as dozens of quotes collected at the town hall meetings and discussion groups. Following a summit that CURYJ and UPM held to share their findings, they published their report on in February on their website.

The major theme that emerged from their report was the need for alternatives to incarceration. Many of the surveyed youth said that being incarcerated only exacerbated trauma that they’d already experienced. Larios said that more traditional alternatives to incarceration—like probation, ankle monitors, or mandatory stays in group homes—are not the solutions they want. “They’re still system-based,” she said. Instead, the report recommends “programming arising out of communities, not imposed onto them,” that would provide young people with support groups, leadership skills, and job training.

The report recommends eliminating these practices, as well as the use of juvenile detention for all minor offenses like misdemeanors and drug-related charges. According to the report, punishments like probation and incarceration only further criminalize young people and often fail to help them change their behavior. In fact, the report’s authors argue, more time in the justice system leads to higher rates of recidivism. Instead, they advocate for a change in approach, so that when a young person commits a crime, the courts would “see it as an opportunity to help and change the aspects that made the individual commit wrongdoing.”

Many survey respondents also said they struggled once they got out of Juvenile Hall because they often didn’t have any financial support or resources. The report listed a handful nonprofits, like RYSE Center in Richmond, which offers programs in organizing, the arts and community health to youth, and MILPA Collective in Salinas, which builds youth leadership skills to advocate for equitable policies at the local and state level, and the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco, which provides jobs and leadership opportunities for formerly incarcerated women.

The CURYJ report also demands an end to out-of-state placements—a practice in which youth are sent to group homes or juvenile detention facilities in other states—as well as a mileage cap on how far away a young offender can be sent, so that they are never sent so far from home that their families can’t visit them.

And finally, it calls for the creation a separate court for transitional aged youth between the ages of 18 and 25. Beaulieu said that it’s important to recognize that young people’s brains are still developing between those ages, which should be reflected in determining the appropriate punishment.

A model for that type of court is just across the bay in San Francisco. In 2015, under the direction of District Attorney George Gascon, Young Adult Court was established with the aim of providing case management, counseling, and housing and employment support rather than incarceration or probation. A 2017 report by Social Policy Research Associates concluded that the program’s focus on understanding the brain development of young adults was groundbreaking and has resulted in better life outcomes and reduced rates of recidivism for participants.

And although the CURYJ survey has a small sample size and a non-traditional interviewing approach, Daniel Macallair, the executive director at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said that its findings align with decades of research showing that incarceration doesn’t work. When it comes to “how best to rehabilitate people or improve the chances that people will succeed and go on to become productive members of society,” he said, “the last thing you do is put them into a prison.”

Speaking on Thursday, Macallair said that he had just come from a meeting with officials from Los Angeles and San Francisco about, in part, eliminating probation, an idea that has recently been gaining a lot of momentum in California. Getting rid of probation is a key step in moving toward “an effective system of community-based interventions,” Macallair said, echoing the recommendations of the report.

On the question of out-of-state placement, Macallair called the practice another sign of a “calcified bureaucracy” that fails to help young people change once they’re released. “The closer they are to home, the closer they are to where you can work with them, the better it is,” he said, “because ultimately success is going to be determined by how well the kid does back in the community.”

In February, members of CURYJ and UPM held a “Dream Beyond Bars Summit” at the California Ballroom in Oakland. Larios emceed and Beaulieu spoke on a panel. The event opened with a tribute to the late Prince White, the deputy director of UPM who passed away in August. Larios said White mentored the fellows and helped guide their research for the report.

Throughout the day, DJs played music and people danced along while performers freestyled. The attendees also listened to panels, at which the fellows presented their findings and recommendations. Larios said that, for her, the next step for the report is to put pressure on county and later state officials to implement their recommendations.

For Beaulieu, speaking on the panel was his way of helping to build up his new community. Afterward, he said, his boss at his internship at New Door Ventures approached him. Until then, he said, she hadn’t known that he’d been incarcerated and she thanked him for sharing his experience. A few weeks later, he said, he got a raise, which he says is thanks to the work the fellows have been doing. “We’re removing that stigma,” he said. “We’re changing people’s minds.”

Dreams Beyond Bars Fellows gathered at the California Ballroom in February to present their report on community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. The fellows hope to spread their initiative throughout the state. Photo courtesy of CURYJ.
Dreams Beyond Bars Fellows gathered at the California Ballroom in February to present their report on community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. The fellows hope to spread their initiative throughout the state. Photo courtesy of CURYJ.

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