Legislation crafted with teen input would help ex-youth offenders start over

Angela Ruggiero, East Bay Times   ·   Link to Article


OAKLAND — A program director at an East Bay youth detention facility recently likened the reentry of teen offenders into society to an alcoholic straight out of rehab, going to work at a bar.

But an East Bay legislator’s bill that juvenile offenders helped craft this past summer would address challenges faced by teens thrust back into the same toxic environments that got them into trouble in the first place.

For teens at the Freedom School at Camp Wilmont Sweeney, a juvenile delinquency program by the Alameda County Probation Department for boys ages 15-19, it was a real-life civics lesson. Their input on reentry challenges inspired Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Oakland, to write a bill advocating better services for youths exiting the juvenile justice system, including transitional housing.

Assembly Bill 1488, introduced earlier this year by Thurmond, would require each county in the state to form a teen transition center. A “one-stop shop,” with temporary housing, counseling services and job help, said Thurmond. Teens could opt-in for the services; as opposed to having it be required by their probation officers. It’s expected to be heard in committees in the legislative cycle beginning in January.

“The reality is, a lot of these kids end up back in the system, or worse, involved in violence,” Thurmond said.

The goal is for them to have a clear plan for when they get out, to prevent them getting into trouble, he said.

An Alameda County study on the juvenile justice system found in 2004 that two-thirds of minors in juvenile hall at the time were re-offenders. The state Division of Juvenile Facilities found in 2007 that 70 percent of youth paroled from its institutions were re-arrested in two years.

Davone Riddick, 18, was one of the teens who helped work on the legislation this past summer. He finished a seven-month program at Camp Sweeney at the end of October and now serves on Oakland’s Youth Advisory Commission.

“A lot of us are viewed as bad kids or whatever. There’s a stigma there,” he said. “But a lot of us want to change, but some people need an institution to help. For some, that’s school, housing, or some even need jail.”

A place like a transition center would give him and others a safe place to feel supported, get help, and not “worry about being stuck in the same place,” said Riddick, who grew up in Oakland.

Riddick and other teens from the Freedom School program were able to travel to the state capitol this summer and participate in a mock-committee hearing before other assembly members and other state officials.

“That was wild to me,” he said. “If anything, it opened my mind, and just how I enjoy public speaking and the whole process of politics.”

After getting out of Camp Sweeney, Riddick went back to the same community where he had first run into trouble. Some of the friends he used to hang out with do things that he knows are in violation of his probation, and he’s trying to avoid that, he said.

“It’s hard because I grew up with most of them,” he said.

He worries he’ll accidentally wind up in wrong-place, wrong-time situations.

Freedom School director Brooklyn Williams worries about the same thing. “It’s like getting out of rehab, and going to work at a bar,” she said.

The Freedom School program is a six-week literary program based on the civil rights movement and is run by a Lincoln, a nonprofit family support services organization. The teens in the program at Sweeney got a visit from the assemblyman during the summer as a guest speaker. From there, the topic of reentry came up almost immediately and eventually formed to talks of writing the bill, Williams said.

There’s a lack of confidence when teen offenders re-enter society, and they don’t have the consistency of positive role models as they did when they were at camp, Williams said. For some, it’s not even safe for them to return to their neighborhoods.

The same services they received in detention could help with the transition: coaches for day-to-day things, such as assistance with job programs, or mental health and counseling services.

“I believe kids respond to leadership and environment,” she said. “The same kid you deem a criminal is able to move a mountain. It’s inspiring but it’s also heartbreaking.”

The difference is the opportunity, she said.

“At a place like this, everyone is in the same boat,” Williams said.

Cheryl Bonacci, of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said although the bill has potential for impact, it would be essential that the centers be community-based and operated. Thurmond is doing a good job at raising the issue and starting a conversation to help develop communities for kids as they go home, she said.

Thurmond said counties would have local control on how they would implement the centers, including cost.

“The more we can do while young people are in the camps, the less work we need to do on the outside,” he said.