State officials move to replicate the county’s successes
After spending her teenage years in and out of juvenile detention in Santa Clara County, California, Arabella Guevara was used to living in crowded conditions. Mattresses on the floor, girls triple-bunked in cells meant for two — Guevara thought she had seen it all.
But none of this prepared her for her final stint at the William F. James Ranch, a 96-bed coed facility in rural Morgan Hill, south of San Jose. As other young women finished their terms and headed home, no one arrived to replace them. By June 2020, Guevara, who had been arrested on car theft and burglary charges, found herself alone with a handful of probation staff.
“It was depressing,” said Guevara, now 19. “You’re already locked up. You’re already away from your family and friends. And now you’re just by yourself.”
What Guevara didn’t know was that the quiet around her reflected a flurry of activity on the outside, involving the local courts, probation department, prosecutors, mental health providers and community groups. While Guevara sat alone at mealtimes, the county’s Juvenile Justice Gender Responsive Task Force had been holding lunchtime meetings in service of an ambitious goal: ending the incarceration of girls in Santa Clara County.
The fact that Guevara was the only girl at the ranch, lonely as it felt to her, was a sign of their success. If the task force had its way, she would be the last.
Zeroing out the number of girls in lockups
Continuing a long decline, the latest federal figures show the number of youth in court-ordered placements through the juvenile justice system fell 77% between 2000 and 2020. Now, Santa Clara County is one of a growing number of regions looking critically at the practice of incarcerating girls and gender-expansive youth. Officials in this progressive Bay Area community long known for its juvenile justice innovations say girls who break the law can be better managed outside of detention settings like camps and juvenile halls.
The Santa Clara County initiative is considered so successful that California officials are launching an effort to replicate it statewide.
In a joint statement issued with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice today, the state’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration — a division of the Health and Human Services Agency — announced a competitive application process offering four counties grants of up to $250,000 each. The state funds will be given to the counties selected to join the new “Ending Girls’ Incarceration in California Action Network,” along with technical support.
The approach centers on providing the most vulnerable girls and gender-expansive youth with community-based supports, while taking a hard look at whether they actually pose a public safety threat. The goal is to divert as many as possible before they ever reach juvenile hall or even a courtroom.
Santa Clara County has early results to show its success. Between 2018 and 2020, the number of girls admitted to juvenile detention facilities in Santa Clara County dropped by 58%, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice, which is partnering in the effort. Even more notably, in a one-year period ending in April 2022, the average number of girls in the county juvenile hall hovered between zero and one. There are currently three girls locked up, two of whom are being housed locally because the state youth prison system is shutting down. The girls unit at the ranch where Guevara was held has been empty since July 2021.
Lindsay Rosenthal, who heads the Vera Institute’s Initiative to End the Incarceration of Girls, said that Santa Clara County’s progress is part of a national trend. Nationwide, juvenile justice reforms have reduced the annual number of girls in detention to fewer than 42,000 nationwide. That is down 50% from 2005, when there were 92,100 girls detained, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Several states are moving away from the practice of detaining girls altogether. Hawaii recently made news by announcing it did not have a single girl in its long-term commitment facility. Vermont has no long-term placement facilities for girls. And in 2020, Maine made it nine months without committing a single girl to long-term placement.
A different approach
Santa Clara County launched its effort in 2015, with an initial focus on improving conditions for girls and trans and gender-fluid youth in juvenile detention facilities. The practice of forcing everyone on the girls’ unit to wear pink jumpsuits, for example, was quickly eliminated, and girls were asked what color they wanted to wear instead.
The task force was just getting started. Their next move was to place a designated case manager for girls, who works on expanding programming inside juvenile hall and evaluates girls for potential early release.
Nonetheless, even as conditions inside juvenile hall improved, a central question remained unanswered: Why were girls being locked up in the first place for low-level charges such as petty theft and “disturbing the peace?”
At one meeting of the local justice system’s Gender Responsive Task Force, as members discussed other ways to improve the detention experience for girls, then-Assistant Chief Probation Officer Nick Birchard proposed a bolder challenge for the group.
“Why are we trying to create better programming for girls in custody?” the veteran probation officer asked. “Why don’t we try to get them out?”
Birchard’s colleagues agreed. But first they needed a clearer understanding of what was landing girls in secure custody to begin with. The New York-based Vera Institute of Justice — which has launched an initiative to zero out the imprisonment of girls and gender-expansive youth nationwide by 2030 — had invited counties interested in participating to apply to join the initiative, which includes no-cost technical support. Santa Clara County applied and was selected.
The data showed that police were taking girls into custody not because they were dangerous but because they were vulnerable.
Then Vera researchers began digging into local statistics on who was being arrested and why. Researchers from Vera and New York University reviewed the files of more than 70 girls involved with the delinquency court and found that 80% had prior involvement with the child welfare system. On average, they had each been the subject of 10 reports of child abuse or neglect. Eighty percent had experienced homelessness or housing instability.
Sixty percent had low- to medium-scores on a risk assessment instrument designed to determine whether they posed enough threat to public safety to justify detention. Property offenses were the most common charges. But probation officials had issued overrides and locked the girls up anyway. What’s more, many of these overrides involved a rules violation such as breaking the terms of an electronic monitoring agreement.
One in 10 fell into a category known as “inability to return home.” Girls were being jailed, in other words, simply because they had nowhere else to go. The data showed that police were taking girls into custody not because they were dangerous but because they were vulnerable. Law enforcement had come to rely on juvenile hall as an easy way to get them off the streets and connected with human services.
The problem with that approach, reformers argue, is that protecting girls is not the role of a locked institution, and incarceration brings with it traumas of its own.
“Those services should be provided out in the community,” said Birchard, who this month became the county’s Chief Probation Officer. “We shouldn’t involve a young person in the justice system at all, if possible.”
With Vera’s research bolstering a new approach, the task force began seeking alternatives to incarceration. Were there less traumatic, more supportive ways the juvenile justice system could respond to what were overwhelmingly low-level offenses?
‘An invisible population’
Former juvenile court Judge Katherine Lucero — who was instrumental in launching her county’s gender task force — has since been named head of California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration. In her state role she is spearheading broader efforts to stop the incarceration of girls, who Lucero says too often remain “an invisible population.”
While their numbers may be relatively low, their needs are high, she said, and a system that does not take that into account poorly serves both the public at large and the girls involved, who are primarily youth of color. According to the Vera Institute, in 2018 youth identified as Latinx comprised 35% of Santa Clara County’s overall youth population, but 78% of girls’ admissions to juvenile hall. Black youth made up only 3% of the county, but 8% of detained girls.
During her time on the bench from 2001 to January 2022, Judge Lucero was increasingly troubled by the reasons girls and gender-expansive youth were brought before her. “Girls were coming in for lower-level offenses, often committed with older men,” she said. “I was seeing broken relationships with families, and sometimes a really angry parent who did not want that girl to come home — and that really old narrative of locking a girl up for her own safety.”
Lucero compares the practice to the colonial era in California, when Franciscan monks locked up women and girls in prison-like “nunneries” to protect them from sexual assault at the hands of Spanish soldiers.
“That’s what we’re still doing,” Lucero said. “In order for girls not to be trafficked, we lock them up. We don’t know what else to do. This has been our solution for hundreds of years.”
Any sense that Lucero is describing a practice from the distant past is belied by a conversation with Guevara, who is now free of the juvenile justice system and working as a youth organizer at the Santa Clara County office of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. The 30-year-old San Francisco-based organization has launched a statewide campaign of its own — Freedom 2030 — with the goal of ending the criminalization of women, girls and gender-expansive people within a decade.
As part of that initiative, the center provides support, mentorship, training and employment to young women and transgender youth in California who have grown up in poverty and experienced foster care and the juvenile justice systems. As soon as she was released, Guevara joined the center as an intern with the “Siblings on the Rise” program.
But her relationship with her mother was fraught, and the arguments at home grew increasingly frequent and intense. Eventually, Guevara left home, sleeping in tents and abandoned buildings.
Despite the challenges of living on the street, she continued to attend court-mandated therapy, participate in wraparound services, and work with center staff, who connected her with a transitional housing program.
But while she was waiting for a spot to open up, an older man at the abandoned building where Guevara was sleeping stole the laptop she was using for her internship,
Staff from the center responded by checking in on her more frequently, bearing food and warm blankets. They met with both Guevara and her mother in an effort to help resolve the conflict between them so Guevara could go home.
The judge overseeing her probation took a different approach, Guevara said: She ordered her to surrender to the probation department so she could be returned to county custody, citing concern for her safety on the streets.
“You’re worried for my safety but then you’re gonna go lock me up?” Guevara recalled thinking. “Jail is not a place you send people because you think they’re not safe or they don’t have anywhere to go. Jail is for when people break the law.”
Today local police understand that unless a girl faces serious charges, juvenile hall is likely to turn her away.
Creating alternatives to custody
Once Santa Clara County and the Vera Institute had gathered sufficient data to demonstrate that incarcerating girls was not increasing public safety, the next challenge was developing alternatives. Lucero tackled this by combining tools she had learned as a dependency and delinquency court judge.
She first looked for ways to support girls in their existing family settings. “Whatever it is the family needs to have that girl go home — if that’s appropriate — is what we should be doing,” she said. “If it’s not a public safety issue, then we need to look at what services we can provide to keep her in the community.”
Sometimes, the efforts leaned on what is referred to in child welfare proceedings as “family finding” — going beyond obvious candidates like local grandparents and aggressively searching for extended family members who might be willing to take in a child.
Girls booked into juvenile hall must see a judge within 48 hours. For Judge Lucero, who has raised two daughters, that was too long. She launched a practice of holding “child and family team meetings” in juvenile justice proceedings that are more typically used in foster care courts — bringing together the girl, her family members, various system partners and community agencies to brainstorm solutions — immediately after a girl was brought to juvenile hall.
Meanwhile, the task force members worked closely with police agencies in the county to make sure they were turning to alternatives such as the nonprofit, community-based Bill Wilson Center, which provides transitional housing and an array of supportive services to vulnerable youth.
Today, said Birchard, local police understand that unless a girl faces serious charges, the probation department, which runs the juvenile hall, is likely to turn her away at intake.
“They can cite and release, they can contact a parent,” Birchard said, “but they can’t bring them into custody for something low-level, because we’re going to release them anyway.”
Lucero has sought to expand this approach in her role overseeing the California juvenile justice system. Among her first official moves has been to expand the Santa Clara County approach to additional counties that aim to stop incarcerating girls. Selected counties that will receive state funding will be announced March 24.
The last girl in the building
In spring of 2020, while she was still being held at the ranch, Guevara was on FaceTime with her mother when a supervisor came in and interrupted the call.
“Pack your things,” he told her. “You’re getting out.”
During Guevara’s time at the ranch, Lucero had met with Jessica Nowlan, then the executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Together, they laid plans to launch one of the center’s several California satellite locations in Santa Clara County and secured $1 million from the state to fund the collaboration.
Desiree Victor, a San Jose native with family roots in Sahuayo, Michoacan, a background in community work and a master’s degree in Mexican American Studies and Education, was tapped to run the new chapter, which opened in 2018.
Now, each time a girl lands in juvenile court, judges would have the Young Women’s Freedom Center contacted. Center staff support the young women to identify and pursue goals such as getting a driver’s license, enrolling in college, finding full-time work or securing permanent housing.
Because so many are struggling to get by, each time they meet one of their goals, the center provides a cash incentive. Participants also have the opportunity to apply for longer-term paid internships, and some go on to permanent jobs as “self-determination coordinators.”
With such support, county judges feel more confident releasing girls from lockups “knowing that they have a sustainable and strong support system,” said Victor, the center’s director.
In Guevara’s case, center staff helped her reach a crucial goal: getting her high school education back on track. Having entered juvenile hall with just 15 credits, she has now managed to graduate a year early.
Guevara said the juvenile court’s new approach helped her turn her life around. And in her current role as a youth organizer for the Young Women’s Freedom Center, she is helping other girls like her avoid jail time altogether. When she came before the court, Guevara said, Judge Lucero always wanted to know what was going on at home, and how she was feeling — and it inspired her: “I could see that she actually cared.”