Liberals mount a comeback in the juvenile justice system

The juvenile justice system in San Francisco has been shot through with politics since its inception in the early 1900s. Caught in a left/right cycle of reform and backlash, the system has never been able to find equilibrium.

Almost a decade ago, liberal Mayor Art Agnos brought in reformers who favored rehabilitation and community-based programs over incarceration. Four years ago, Mayor Frank Jordan ousted the libs, empowered a small cadre of conservative probation officers, and appointed a tough-on-crime Juvenile Probation Commission. The Jordanaires sabotaged community-based alternatives, and the incarceration rates increased.

Now that Willie Brown appears poised to wrest the Mayor's Office from Jordan, the political wind is shifting once again. Liberals are emboldened and have begun their campaign to take back the Youth Guidance Center.

The first salvo in the libs' coup d'etat is a U.S. Justice Department audit, which the Board of Supervisors requested on Monday. Liberals hope the audit will lay bare all manner of mismanagement and abuse -- even drinking on the job -- among the 80 employees of the Juvenile Probation Department. With the findings, they hope to discredit and oust the hard-line probation officers whom Jordan put in charge. "All the hard-liners are nearing retirement," says Dan Macallair, associate director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). "We hope Willie will offer them an early retirement package."

One of the liberals' main complaints is the failure of some probation officers to adequately assess the needs of youths and provide the dedicated supervision needed to keep a kid on the straight and narrow.

The example of the Macklin boys (not their real name) illustrates why some think the probation officers are the central problem.

From their first contact with the Juvenile Probation Department, the Macklin brothers -- Peter, 15, and Jack, 16 -- were mishandled and misplaced.

After his first offense for attempted robbery, Peter was placed in a serious habitual criminals program run by the Juvenile Probation Department. Both he and Jack, who was also arrested for attempted robbery, were not informed of a community-based program that could have helped them -- even after their mother asked their probation officer if such a program existed.

After his second offense, Peter's lawyer told him about the program, the Detention and Diversion Advocacy Project (DDAP), and he's making headway on his rehabilitation. But his brother, who wasn't able to avail himself of DDAP, is still struggling to stay in school and out of trouble, the boys' mother says.

DDAP is one of the remnants of the liberal community-based system Agnos reformers tried to put in place. The hostility some probation officers feel toward the programs -- viewing them as a threat to their control over the system -- is often expressed in subtle ways, like when kids in need are not told of DDAP.

Macallair and his group, CJCJ, are at the forefront of the battle to retake the system from the probation officers and Jordan's commissioners. Joining CJCJ are advocacy groups like Coleman Advocates for Youth and Children and the Real Alternatives Project.

Macallair says the department has contracts with several community-based groups that provide supervision of youths awaiting trial. Getting a kid into a rehabilitation program like the Omega Boys Club immediately after he enters the system is crucial. Yet Macallair can't remember the last time a juvenile offender was referred to the pretrial program by the Probation Department.

"Those slots are never assigned," Macallair says. "That's why we set up DDAP they way we did."

DDAP counselors hook up with defense attorneys and advocate directly to the court for the release of youths awaiting sentencing, going around the probation officers. "The probation officers always engage in this subtle form of sabotage," Macallair says. "It goes right to heart of the Probation Department's hostile attitude towards the community."

The Macklin brothers' mother agrees. She says her boys were never offered any possibility of enrolling in DDAP or the Omega Boys Club. "I even asked their probation officers if there were programs that they could participate in," she says.

Peter's probation officer never visited him while he was on probation for his first offense and never contacted his teachers to see if he was attending school, his mother says.

Another story of institutional neglect involves a Latino teen-ager who pleaded with his probation officer this summer not to be sent to Hidden Valley Ranch, a detention center in the San Gregorio Mountains in San Mateo County. He said kids he knew there would beat him up. The probation officer didn't heed the teen-ager's request, and he was jumped at Hidden Valley. The youth's grandmother, his legal guardian, was not informed of his detention at Hidden Valley until it was too late to protest. And she wasn't informed by probation staff of the beating. She didn't know of it until her grandson called her in tears from the Youth Guidance Center after he had been returned from the ranch.

"No one took the time to notify me of the [beating]," the child's grandmother wrote in a letter to the Probation Department. "No one seemed to care, like he was an animal. I feel that we had the right to be [notified]. He has a family. He's not alone."

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