By Michael Smith

Posted on August 22, 2015 by the Webmaster

This article was written on April 25 while SB 124 was scheduled for a hearing the Senate Appropriations Committee.

I strongly support SB 124 because it addresses one of the most serious problems in both juvenile and adult institutions in California and in most, if not all, other states: the misuse of isolation (solitary confinement). This bill, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, Democrat of San Francisco, defines the reasons it can and cannot be used and the length of time it can be used - only after exhausting other options. It also defines strict documentation - why isolation is necessary, who authorized it, what was done in lieu of using it, and who was isolated and for how long.

If all of the mandates in SB 124 were implemented and carried out there could be drastic impacts to repair a broken system, But in order for that to be accomplished there must be a solid system of enforcement and serious consequences when individuals violate the law. It is these aspects that I find lacking in almost every bill in the Legislature.

In order for enforcement to take place there are many individuals who must make this happen: The Governor, the State Attorney General, Juvenile Court Judges, Boards of Supervisors, Chief Probation Officers, Superintendents of facilities, and the staff who work in those facilities. One of the reasons the system is so broken is that individuals who have power over youngsters in our facilities have learned that they can violate the law without any repercussions. Until that is adequately addressed laws will be no more than print to be scoffed at.

Is this wishful thinking and pipe dreams? Not in the least. As a peace officer in San Jose, I was among those who demonstrated that it could be done. Despite many adversaries in our ranks we proved we could be humane and yet still hold youths accountable for their behavior and hold staff accountable if they violated the law. We proved we could reduce the number of incidents resulting in isolation. We proved we could run effective, diverse programs within Juvenile Hall without carrying mace, restraints or weapons. And we proved we could save the county money by doing it. It was not easy, and in the last few years I was there, key people making this happen retired, and I foresaw that while some advances would remain, many would disappear, I do not know if this is true.

One book that should be required reading in every sociology, psychology, corrections and related classes in colleges and universities as well as for every one on the list above is Nell Bernstein's Burning Down The House - The End of Juvenile Prisons. It defines the abuses children have suffered in institutions in the past and are presently - ranging from assault and battery, rape, sexual assault, injury and even death. Almost always nobody perpetrating these offenses is disciplined or charged with a crime. This book also enforces the concept that a person's brain is not fully developed until around the age of 22, and that most youngsters outgrow delinquent behavior as they mature.

Bernstein has visited juvenile institutions through the United States and has come to the conclusion that while some (particularly in Missouri and Massachusettes) have attempted to eradicate severe abuses and even deaths of youths in custody, these changes are not long lasting as persons in charge change, funding is cut, Governors and representatives follow a "hard on crime" philosophy, etc. She is particularly critical of juvenile institutions in California - some of which have been closed down for lack of change.

I encourage everyone to strongly support SB 124 and to educate themselves on what is taking place in our institutions in California, and what each of us can do to improve the lives of those children who are too often out of sight and out of mind.

Michael Smith is a member of the State Central Committee from Santa Cruz County. A retired peace officer, he worked at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall in San Jose for 27 years as a Counselor, Sr. Counselor, and Supervisor from 1962 to 1989.

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