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Culture change ends mistreatment of Sacramento juvenile offenders

Lately it has been hard to find a positive story about California’s prisons, but there is a great one coming out of the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility. Sacramento’s juvenile hall houses around 200 juvenile offenders as they await trial in either adult or juvenile court.

In 2006, a prisoners’ rights group sued the facility on the grounds that officers were routinely using excessive force, used physical punishment in response to minor rules violations, subjected young offenders to prolonged isolation in solitary confinement, and failed to provide adequate mental health services. In 2009, the county agreed to a consent decree requiring it to turn the situation around.

It did. According to the very prisoners’ rights lawyer who sued the county, the facility has been completely turned around and is now safe and rehabilitative. In fact, when the consent decree came up for extension in 2009, the attorney declined to ask for one, saying that the county had “transformed the juvenile hall from a place of pain and suffering into a place that provides rehabilitation and treatment to juvenile offenders.”

"They weren't breaking arms anymore,” he added. “The kids were happy."

They still are. One young offender interviewed by the Sacramento Bee said the changes were obvious. "When I first entered this place,” he said, referring to the period before the changes, “it was nothing but gang stuff going on - constantly, every day, and people refusing to take it down. People are now having the same vibe with each other, not causing as much trouble. I don't have to worry about as much stuff."

What did it take to bring about this astounding and positive reversal? According to those involved, what it took was a change in the culture.

"Conventional wisdom might be that reducing staff force would somehow enable or permit a greater number of incidents of violence by the youth," says the county’s new probation chief, who took over after the changes were made. "But what we've seen is exactly the opposite."

In 2010, facility staff used force in 704 incidents, while in 2012 that number had dropped by more than 50 percent to 347. The new probation chief is continuing the previous chief’s strategy of immediately reviewing use of force data and implementing any indicated changes into policy.

The culture change is great for the staff, who are involved in fewer violent confrontations that often get them injured. It’s even better for the juvenile offenders who have benefitted from the change.

"We talk to these kids a lot more,” said one 13-year department veteran. “And they've opened up to us more than they ever did before."

Source: The Sacramento Bee, “County juvenile hall cuts use of force, beefs up education in lawsuit's wake,” Andy Furillo, July 27, 2013

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