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Liberals mount a comeback in the juvenile justice system

Wednesday, Dec 6 1995
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."

Compounding the problems in the Juvenile Probation Department is the absence of any employee evaluation process. Other than a pro forma yearly review, probation officers are not reviewed for job performance. Abusive probation officers are allowed to continue in their jobs even after startling outbursts.

In the late '80s, one officer was convicted of false imprisonment after he handcuffed a neighbor's kid, whom he suspected of stealing fishing equipment, and marched him at gunpoint down to his parents' house. The officer is still on the job.

Several probation officers have been accused of drinking on the job and treating their kids in an abusive manner. "We have reports that probation officers work inebriated and belligerent," says Ross Mirkarimi, an aide to Supervisor Terence Hallinan, who asked for the audit of the department.

The lack of accountability was brought to light Nov. 28 when a supervisors' panel passed the audit request out to the full board.

Supervisor Hallinan asked Chief Probation Officer Ed Flowers, the city's top juvenile justice official, what benchmarks and criteria he uses to evaluate probation officers.

"I haven't had an opportunity to get ready for this," Flowers responded.
The dialogue quickly disintegrated into an argument after Hallinan pressed Flowers.

"Are you going to beat me over the head about this?" Flowers yelled.
"You are out of order," Hallinan shot back.
The sometimes-shoddy work of probation officers, and the failure of the department to hold them accountable, is part of the reason the Youth Guidance Center is a revolving door. The conspiratorial of mind could interpret the probation officers' actions as a conscious attempt to set up kids for failure, ensure a steady stream of offenders, and further entrench themselves as necessary cogs in the bureaucracy.

But there are no smoke-filled rooms here, no cabals plotting the downfall of troubled teens. It's worse than that. Benign neglect is ensuring the same results.

Changing the system will not be easy. The biggest obstacle lies in the nature of the political debate surrounding juvenile justice.

As the supervisors' panel heard testimony for and against the audit, San Francisco police lieutenant and youth advocate Art Tapia put the stalemate in perspective. "It's a shame that all juvenile justice issues have to come down along liberal and conservative lines," he said. "It's either lock 'em up or set 'em all free. It's either all institutional solutions or community-based organizations. In between these two polarities, chaos reigns."

For decades, the debate has remained exactly as Tapia described. Framed as a winner-takes-all competition between liberal and conservative approaches, the polarized exchange has ensured two things: temporary political victories and a stalemate that keeps anything substantive from happening. The opposing camps are so polarized, they never settle on the best solution to juvenile crime: a marriage of their two philosophies.

On one level, the hard-liners in the Probation Department richly deserve their comeuppance. They have used the same tactics the liberals are using today.

Last year, Mayor Jordan set up a task force to audit the department. The task force was heavily weighted with political allies of the mayor or bureaucrats who owed their high-paying jobs to the mayor. Essentially, the task force was a lynch mob whose mandate was to topple the two top juvenile justice officials -- Chief Probation Officer Fred Jordan and Youth Guidance Center Director Don Mead -- both of whom advocated liberal approaches to crime-fighting.

The effort succeeded. The task force turned up the myriad institutional problems -- lack of girls programs, escapes and fights, lack of safety precautions for staff and offenders, and recidivism rates -- that have plagued the juvenile justice system since the turn of the century. The mayor used the long-standing problems to fire Jordan and Mead.

The Justice Department audit is the liberals' rejoinder. This time it's the hard-liners who'll be broken on the karmic wheel of city politics. "They're pretty nervous up there," says Supervisor Tom Ammiano, referring to the Jordan supporters in the Probation Department.

Putting it more succinctly is DDAP Director Andrea Shorter. "It's all over for them," she says.

About The Author

George Cothran


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