By Marisa Lagos | The San Francisco Chronicle —
Redwood trees line the road to Log Cabin Ranch, a 640-acre property in the woods of La Honda that’s home to snakes, deer, turkeys, hawks and up to 24 of San Francisco’s most troubled youths.
There are no fences, no locks and no handcuffs here, although it is a criminal lockup. In some ways, the ranch seems like summer camp. The young men who call it home go to school together, work, garden and eat together – and undergo intensive group counseling together.
They also help hold each other to the facility’s high standards. Some are allowed to go home on weekends; this year, four young men actually chose to stay on longer than the courts mandated in order to finish their high school diplomas. The ranch, about an hour south of San Francisco in San Mateo County, is what many advocates for youth hope the future of juvenile corrections will look like in California. While none of the youths here have committed murder, they all have a “significant delinquent history,” according to San Francisco’s Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bill Sifferman, and some have convictions for such violent crimes as assault or robbery.
As the state incarcerates fewer and fewer juveniles, after a decade of criticism, legal battles and skyrocketing costs, many counties are looking for alternatives to traditional juvenile halls. Those systems, experts say, have never been proven to improve the lives of youths nor the safety of communities, and many studies in recent years have concluded that they actually leave juveniles worse off than when they came in.
Camps and community-based programs that rely on group formats and help youths develop new skills and address personal challenges fare much better when it comes to reducing recidivism, studies show.
“These aren’t highfalutin (programs) with a lot of psychobabble,” said Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, one of the firms that assisted in a 2000 suit over the conditions in state-run facilities. “They really just help the kids to see the community and their families in context and really take a look at what’s been happening in their lives, and realize they have choices.”
These days, only about 1,000 of the most violent California offenders are detained in state facilities run by the Division of Juvenile Justice, down from a high of 10,000 a decade ago. Most youths convicted of a crime these days remain the responsibility of counties, including the 14 young men convicted in San Francisco who call Log Cabin Ranch home.
San Francisco isn’t the only county embracing the camp model. Santa Clara has a highly praised similar facility, and Los Angeles, which accounts for about one-third of the juvenile offenders in the state, is in the process of creating one.
The teenagers sleep in Ikea beds surrounded by calendars and posters instead of military-like barracks. Their dorms are lined with carpet, and they have books on their nightstands. On the other side of the room from the sleeping quarters is a circle of chairs and couches where the youths engage in twice-a-day “check-in” sessions and talk about their mental state; at night, after school and after work, they have group therapy.
Outside groups visit several times a week to teach them how to garden and do construction work on the facility. And on weekends, families are shuttled in on Muni buses; in some cases, youths can earn the privilege of going home for a night or two a week.
Sifferman said the county sees much better outcomes among the participants at Log Cabin Ranch than those at Juvenile Hall – in part because a key component of the program is including parents in the treatment.
San Francisco’s camp costs $3 million a year to maintain, or about $125,000 each for 24 youths a year, and offenders usually stay for eight to 12 months. San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall, by contrast, can hold up to 150 offenders but usually has between 65 and 75 at a time and costs $11.5 million a year to maintain, for a range of $76,000 to $152,000 per person annually.
Supporters say the programs save money, however, by reducing long-term correctional spending on both the juvenile and adult side.
Not everyone is convinced that this is the best model. Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, said community-based alternatives – where juvenile offenders still live at home but participate in intensive local programs – have been better proven to reduce costs and drastically improve outcomes. He pointed to Ohio, where counties are incentivized to create these local programs with state grants and have seen incarceration rates, costs and recidivism all decline.
Juvenile justice experts in California said a mix of camps and local programs would work best in this state. Burrell, the youth attorney, said it shouldn’t be hard to further reduce the state system, given that only 11 percent of the juvenile population was convicted of murder.
Some youths at Log Cabin Ranch said they have benefited greatly because they were removed from the neighborhoods where they got in trouble. Davante, an 18-year-old, said he was not ready to be at home after his first release; he violated a term of his probation and was returned to the ranch.
“I’m ready for a change now,” he said.
Marisa Lagos is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org