In the Midst of COVID-19 Crisis, Alameda County Must Rethink Its Youth Justice System

Camp Wilmont Sweeney in Alameda County, California, housed about 14 youth on an average day last year. Photo: Alameda County Probation Department

Late last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that California was granting early release to 3,500 people in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus virus and protect corrections staff. In Alameda County, officials have released more than 30 percent of the men and women who were in Santa Rita, the county’s adult jail. And the Alameda County Probation Department has agreed to relax policies to reduce the number of times that youth would have to leave their homes to report to probation and allow them to find ways to complete probation terms while still being able to shelter in place.

These are necessary and encouraging developments, but we must do much more—and quickly—for our young people. One immediate action Alameda County leaders must take right now as part of their COVID-19 crisis response: release incarcerated young people.

We must protect all our children, including the approximately 70 young people who are detained in Alameda County’s youth confinement facilities, the juvenile hall and Camp Sweeney.

To date, more than 30 people inside Santa Rita have tested positive for COVID-19, including two staff members. If the virus were to spread in juvenile hall and Camp Sweeney, it endangers the lives of the young people inside, the staff serving them, our families, and communities. County leaders must act now to protect our youth.

Beyond the immediate needs, the current crisis is shining a much-needed spotlight on the immorality and the dangers inherent in Alameda County’s approach to youth justice. The vast majority of the young people held in juvenile hall and Camp Sweeney are people of color. A staggering 7 out of 10 youth in juvenile hall are black. The racial disparities that these types of statistics make inherently clear are proof of the systemic barriers facing young people of color.

Then there is the enormous fiscal cost. Altogether, the county is spending nearly $460,000 per youth per year to keep each of these young people locked up. By comparison, the average annual cost per pupil to educate children in Alameda County is roughly $15,000.

It’s enough to challenge anyone’s assumptions about how we think about youth justice. And yet Alameda County is still planning to invest an additional $75 million to rebuild Camp Sweeney into a 100-bed detention site for youth. All that for a facility that housed only 14 young people on an average day last year.

Last month, in front of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, Ricardo Jimenez, a fellow with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, called on supervisors to make sure that young people had access to basic needs, such as food, as well as community programs, without having to be sentenced to Camp Sweeney. “Why should we have to wait until we get in trouble before we get access to these kinds of programs?” he said.

He is right. Instead of investing precious resources in a detention facility, we can invest in safety net and community support and care so young people can have what they need to live and thrive outside of the justice system. We must invest in community-based groups offering college classes and GED support, employment opportunities, life coaches and mentors, entrepreneurship training and mental health referrals.

Alameda County can advance a transformative vision of youth justice. Releasing young people who are facing the grave risk of getting sick in detention is just the first step. This crisis is our opportunity to bring healing, peace and opportunity to young people and their communities instead of more policing and mass incarceration. There is no better time than now to take action.

Nicole Lee is the executive director of the Urban Peace Movement. Clarence Ford is a policy research associate with the W. Haywood Burns Institute.

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