This article originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange on March 30, 2015. Click here to view.
by Lynne Anderson
Louie Chagolla was in and out of trouble with the law for most of his teenage years. He was in lockup twice and, when not in lockup, he was on probation.
Possession of a deadly weapon made the scared but tough-acting kid feel secure on the streets of Los Angeles. And, it solidified his sense of belonging to his surrogate family, his gang.
The first time he got into trouble with a deadly weapon, he was in middle school. That led to lockup. Then there was vandalism. That led to probation.
In 2011, at age 17, he was working the graveyard shift, helping to support his mother, being the man of the house. Nothing he had learned while locked away taught him ways to return safely to his community. Soon, he wanted back with his old gang. Having a gun was expected in the group.
A few weeks later, Chagolla was arrested again for possession of a deadly weapon. He was back in a juvenile correctional facility.
Chagolla, now 20, is out for the second time, and, he claims, for good. Things are different after this release. Chagolla has a mentor. He has job training. He has a high school diploma. He is attending Los Angeles Community Community College. He has a wide network of other young adults also locked up as juveniles who are working to stay healthy, law-abiding and responsible.
These things didn’t happen because of any efforts by the state of California to help him re-enter the community.
Chagolla’s case shows holes in the system that exist in almost every state, advocates say. Currently, most states do not make re-entry plans for youth leaving facilities so they can continue with their education, rebond with their families, train for jobs, find housing and get crucial benefits they may be eligible for, such as food stamps or TANF.
With the help of an organization that aims to support juveniles charged as adults who serve time in adult prisons, Chagolla is receiving instruction, help with schooling and employment, and — if it’s not too strong a word — love, which he lacked during many of his growing-up years.
“This wasn’t something I’d ever thought of before,” Chagolla said of the care he is receiving now.
That’s because the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, founded by former movie producer Scott Budnick, has made not just a world of difference but a community of difference.
“I get job training, I have a place to live,” Chagolla said. “I have a mentor.”
Right after his release, Chagolla moved in with his aunt because he could not afford a place to live. He was only able to find piecemeal work.
“Graveyard work,” he said. “Demolition work.” In other words, back along the path he had been down before, possibly to another dead end. He couldn’t get a steady job; no one would hire him. He couldn’t even think about opening a bank account; he didn’t have enough money.
He was wondering what to do next when he heard about ARC, which also helps juveniles in detention.
“They talked to me about going to college,” said Chagolla — and helped him apply. He is studying mathematics. He applied for an internship at ARC. He got it and learned office and communication skills, one of the program’s goals. Most importantly, “I see everyone in there as a mentor. They are family.”
Chagolla is like many of the 60,000 youths in residential placement each year whose mental health, educational, social, employment and housing needs often go unaddressed, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network. Growing consensus has emerged that locking kids up in harsh juvenile facilities or, worse, in adult prisons — has been a fiasco.
Rearrest rates for juveniles have been as high as 75 percent. Also, studies show that two-thirds of juveniles released from detention do not return to school. Education in juvenile facilities often fails to meet the needs of youth, about 70 percent of whom have been found to have learning disabilities, according to the NJJN.
Strides have been made in many states, with programs such as the federal Second Chance Act providing money to state and local governments and nonprofits to reduce recidivism. Since 2009, about 600 Second Chance Act grants have been made. From July 2009 to June 2013, more than 17,000 juveniles received support and other services through Second Chance grants. During those four years, more than 20 percent of the $165 million in federal grants has gone to agencies and organizations serving youth, according to a report from the NJJN.
In July, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will go into effect, requiring local workforce areas to spend at least 75 percent of their funding on “disconnected youth.”
Still, tens of thousands of juveniles in lockup nationally are not getting the education, health care, psychological help and vocational help they need. And that’s a pity, experts say.
Research into brain development in the past two decades has shown that some of the same developmental factors that cause adolescents and young adults to act impulsively also mean they are more flexible. That means that young people have a great capacity to change, explained Peter Ash, forensic child and adolescent psychiatrist at Emory University and director of the Psychiatry and Law Service at Emory.
“From a rehabilitation perspective, adolescents have a lot more possibility for significant rehabilitation” than adults do, Ash said. While not all young people can be rehabilitated, he said, “what’s critical is re-entry.”
Re-entry refers to a plan that is — or should be, experts say — developed as soon as a youth is confined.
Research indicates that strong educational plans need to be in place from the moment a youth enters confinement, with developmentally disabled youth receiving special help, and superior coordination to help youth retain educational credits and return to school when they leave. Discharge planning that helps to maintain benefits — e.g., to assure continued access to medication — is crucial. Mental health care is essential, experts said.
However, most youth leave facilities without a plan or assistance — some of them in worse shape than they entered, some studies suggest. They fall behind not only in their education but also in important developmental ways, as they miss the “normal” interaction and experiences of teenagers. They miss vocational training. They often receive suboptimal care for mental health and substance abuse issues, being prescribed drugs normally used to treat mental illness but given to them so they will be easier to handle, or to help them sleep.
It’s hard to get a precise figure on how many juveniles are receiving re-entry or aftercare help. States vary not only in how they decide whom to lock up and for how long but also in the way they keep data on the juveniles locked up and how they follow them afterward.
Today, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges says about 61,000 juvenile offenders were in residential placement in 2011, with about one-fourth of those in state-operated, long-term secure facilities. The one-day count for 2012 was 57,190, the lowest since 1975, the National Council of Juvenile Justice says.
Several states, some under direction from the Department of Justice, have looked for ways to keep youthful offenders out of adult prisons and also out of juvenile detention centers.
Several federal programs have been focused on re-entry. The Department of Labor awarded grants to 28 community-based organizations in 2013 to help improve the job market prospects for youth in the juvenile justice system. The services include mentoring, education and leadership training. Some groups that received grants will also work with nonprofit legal services to help youth expunge their records.
Also, Job Corps provides career development help to youth aged 16-24 who are considered at risk, including youth who have been involved with the court system. They are eligible so long as they do not require face-to-face court or institutional supervision. Training is provided in automotive and machine repair for those who will not go on to college. For those who do, there is help to prepare for entrance into community colleges. There is also help to prepare for military service.
Studies have suggested that keeping juveniles closer to home and focusing on re-entry is working. For instance, a study conducted by the Council of State Governments on efforts to keep juvenile offenders close to home in Texas showed that public safety did not worsen when youth were kept out of state-run secure correctional facilities.
“We used to call it hormones,” Ash said of the impulsive, sometimes irrational behavior that teens and young adults indulge in. “And while hormones are a piece of it, there is a delay in the brain centers that tamp down the emotional centers. At age 14, they can and do make rational decisions, assuming they have the time to think about it. But in an emotionally charged situation, they act impulsively.”
Ash said a good way to think of a teen brain in an emotional situation would be this: Think of an automobile with a heavy foot on the gas and brakes that don’t work well.
As their brains mature, teen brains go through what many neurologists call “synaptic pruning,” in which extra connections naturally wither. Thanks to other organic processes in the juvenile brain, it’s not until age 24 or 25 that the human brain fully matures, according to some experts. Add trauma, neglect and drugs to that natural mess of a mix, and a juvenile brain can lead a teen to disaster. Put several together, adding peer pressure, and they can and do make bad choices.
This knowledge has helped doctors, teachers, counselors, judges and other experts who work with juveniles understand what is happening in their brains. But it hasn’t yet helped show how to help those youth recover from disastrous choices, such as crime.
And if youth are locked up, then what happens when that juvenile is released? There are few solid plans — and poor coordination among agencies, such as educational systems, Medicaid, other health care systems and providers, experts said.
“One of the most sensitive issues is the labor market issue,” said Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. “We have essentially disrupted those years during which they would gain the knowledge and skills to be able to have a job, to learn to accept authority, to learn to get along with co-workers, to learn a skill. We have removed them, and they come out at 21, and they can be more explosive, more angry than ever.”
Youthful offenders have problems returning to a home where relationships were tense and communication skills lacking. They also are at risk if they go back to a dangerous neighborhood without training to help them learn better decision-making skills.
Chagolla feels fortunate to have connected with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. After having been incarcerated previously, he knew the pitfalls. And he didn’t want to go there.
That’s why he has been thrilled with the ARC program. He has made friends with other young men who are considered “members” at ARC. He has learned that they have all had major setbacks in their lives before they landed in trouble.
Talking honestly with his mentor and his friends — there’s a special Facebook page that only other ARC members can join — has helped him process complicated feelings. As a result, “I’ve learned sympathy, and I’ve learned empathy,” Chagolla said.
Having feelings and understanding for juvenile offenders goes a long way toward helping them, said Cheryl Bonacci, a mentor at ARC and member services director.
“Almost all have experienced abuse, trauma or serious neglect, and they have failed collectively — educationally, with their families, learning communications skills,” she said. “Not until that pain is turned outward do we want to pay attention to it. Until we address that underlying trauma and pain, it’s going to come out sideways.”
The mentoring process helps, she said, but being able to share the experiences they have been through with others in recovery and learning new emotional skills may be ARC’s most important benefit.
“We as mentors can empathize, but the greatest gift is for them to be able to know guys who have walked their walk and been in their place,” Bonacci said. “I hear them say that ‘I don’t want to be in another program,’ and I ask them if that’s what got them there in the first place. And I tell them that other people here will recognize what they’ve been through. They ask, ‘How will they know?’ and I say ‘They’ll see it in your eyes.’”
The changes that need to happen to help youth reshape their lives depends not only on changes within the juvenile justice system, said Butts and other experts. Employers, faith-based groups, landlords, neighbors, neighborhood centers, those harmed by crime and the youths themselves need to reconsider how they view a youthful offender.
For example, should youthful offenders have to admit on housing and job applications that they have been in detention? What would it take for society to trust that a youthful offender will not harm again?
A key goal of re-entry is to help make life back in the community and with families as normal as possible, Butts said. That can be challenging. Some of it is a management problem, he said, with the need to coordinate resources but to do that without the court system being in control.
“You want normalizing experiences,” Butts said, including such things as youth sports, after-school art programs and such. “But you don’t want it to be seen as under court order.”
Some of the problem comes in the language society uses to describe youths who make mistakes and commit crimes, Butts said.
“We call people ‘high-risk offenders’ and [sometimes] what we really mean is that they may have committed a property crime, or smoked crack,” Butt said. “It’s a labeling problem, and it makes it easy for people to flip the switch and say this person is dangerous.”
The whole concept of “risk” is not only misused but often misunderstood, he said.
“People think of ‘risk’ as ‘dangerous,’” said Butts, adding that there is no data that show who actually commits crimes — and who of the youthful offenders might go on to become violent offenders. Thus, youthful offenders who might never make a second bad choice get mislabeled — and mistreated.
“Maybe we could call them ‘bad choice-makers,’ or” said Butts, hesitating. “‘adolescents.’”