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Eugene was nearly 18, and headed for up to six years hard time at "gladiator school," also known as the California Youth Authority, after stomping in a police car windshield. Less severe alternatives seemed to have been exhausted by the time he appeared before Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard at the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center on Aug. 19.
Eugene (who asked that his last name not be used) had amassed a dizzying rap sheet even by the standards of his 19th Street Mission District gang cohorts. Beginning with auto theft and gun possession busts at age 11, he had accumulated at least three dozen arrests, placements in numerous S.F. rehabilitation programs and a multiplicity of out-of-county group homes, and eventually a six-month incarceration period at the city's Log Cabin Ranch honor camp and school.
"An institutional man" by his own estimation, Eugene could have never guessed what was coming next.
Meeting in chambers, Woolard agreed to freeze Eugene's sentence to the Youth Authority and instead consign him to a community-based nonprofit group called the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project (DDAP) for 90 days. The probation conditions were elaborate. But if he worked fast with his DDAP counselor to complete high school study (he was within a few courses) and stayed in drug rehabilitation at a second nonprofit group, Horizons Unlimited Inc. (which hooked him up with yet another nonprofit, Youth Outlook Magazine, where Eugene writes and illustrates), he could steer clear of what everybody -- save for Woolard -- considered his destiny: the Youth Authority. And come off the probation rolls for the first time in his life since age 11.
"She was very compassionate. It was like a test," he says of Woolard's measured leniency.
"The judge wanted to see if letting me go could work," he says. "How I turned out would affect other hard-core kids who came along after me."
Woolard is rolling the dice on Eugene. But more specifically, she is betting on the nonprofit Detention Diversion Advocacy Project, a relatively new player in S.F.'s long-standing but little-scrutinized network of community-based groups paid by the city to attempt to rehabilitate troubled youth -- from truants and shoplifters to violent criminals. Currently, a rickety core network of 22 nonprofits gets $2.7 million annually from S.F.'s Juvenile Probation Department and the Mayor's Office to administer or arrange for shock counseling, vocational training, substance-abuse counseling, and even trips to Disneyland -- all with an eye toward reforming several thousand juvenile delinquents each year.
Woolard isn't the only gambler at the table.
Mayor Willie Brown is pushing to expand these programs -- in a dramatic policy break from former Mayor Frank Jordan that will come into stark relief at his Youth Summit Oct. 5 and 6.
Brown sees community-based alternatives to incarceration as the key to fixing a system that everyone -- left, right, and center -- agrees is a not-so-funny national joke for its failure to deliver relevant rehabilitative services to young offenders, who by virtue of their age are considered redeemable.
The mayor has set the stage for implementing his vision through his appointments to the Juvenile Probation Commission. His picks constitute a majority on the seven-member panel. Leading the Probation Department overseers is commission President Charles Breyer, a former S.F. chief assistant district attorney who is now a heavyweight downtown lawyer with Coblentz, Cahen, McCabe & Breyer, a firm with serious clout inside the Democratic Party.
A second key appointee is Damon Keith Hale, a criminal defense attorney for the Bayview-Hunters Point Foundation, itself the umbrella nonprofit for a group that holds city contracts to counsel juvenile delinquents and supervise home detention for some.
And just days ago, Brown tapped Rudy Smith, a longtime friend and a career juvenile probation officer, as the interim probation chief. Smith, who held a management post in probation services in San Mateo County, is someone whose instincts Brown trusts. He also may inoculate the mayor against the plotting by veteran law-and-order probation officers that undermined the last liberal reforms to hit S.F.'s Juvenile Hall.
"What happened before, happened before," said Smith last week in his first interview since his appointment. "I think there are things that can be worked out. It requires keeping the bottom line in mind: helping young people by keeping them out of the juvenile justice system, and helping those who do enter it to salvage their lives."
Before they can hope to salvage many lives, the mayor and his new probation chief must first salvage the system.
Each year, 5,500 youths under age 18 are arrested and turned over to probation officials at the Youth Guidance Center, home to Juvenile Hall (the city's pretrial lockup) and the juvenile division of the S.F. Superior Court.
A visit to the hall provides a glimpse of the collective misery the system confronts every day.
On July 1, for instance, 102 males and 20 females, ages 12 to 18, were behind bars on charges that ranged from selling fireworks to a minor to homicide. Some had been there for only a few hours, like the 12-year-old with no previous convictions being held on a battery charge. Others had been in for far longer, like the 16-year-old with six prior felonies who was charged with forcible rape -- who'd languished 346 days. A 15-year-old boy arrested 23 times, but whose worst offense was first-degree burglary, boasted the longest rap sheet in the house. Many of his hallmates carried far heavier beefs, however. Eight were being held for murder (two were just 14 years old), and six for attempted murder.