. A cell for male detainees at Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility. Photo by Dave Maass
California's second largest county is coping with widespread gang violence and prescription drug abuse among youth. But as election day nears, juvenile justice remains a whisper in a monsoon of economic rhetoric.
According to statistics released this year by the San Diego Association of Governments, 38 percent of male juveniles arrestees— and 28 percent of female juvenile arrestees— reported gang affiliations. And last year, 37 percent of juveniles arrested acknowledged prescription drug abuse— the highest rate in four years—according to a county task force.
In the only race on any level with a direct influence over juvenile justice policy in this county of more than 3.1 million people, the challenges of dealing with troubled young people have indeed surfaced—but almost as an afterthought.
The two candidates for the five-member San Diego County Board of Supervisors have an opportunity to take the county in a new direction as they vie for the first open seat in 16 years. So far they've traded jabs on funding for after-school programs as part of a larger campaign quarrel over an alleged county “slush fund.”
But in general the juvenile justice problems which are preoccupying some parents and county officials barely get a close examination.
That may not be surprising in an election season that has hinged on jobs and the economy in local as well as national contests. Even in education-related races, the debate has focused squarely on financial mismanagement and labor unions, issues that put the welfare of troubled kids below the concerns of taxpayers.
But the battle in San Diego offers an object lesson in how an issue that strikes close to home for parents and communities across the U.S. has received short shrift.
“It's stupefying,” says Susan Lankford, an author and activist who documents the cycle of incarceration and homelessness, particularly among youth in San Diego. “The things we have to hear about on the news and to avoid talking about the kids and their potential...It's tragic.”
As in many other jurisdictions around the U.S., San Diego’s county government is responsible for juvenile detention and probation.
The union representing probation officers came out early in favor of Republican Steve Danon, currently chief of staff for Congressman Brian Bilbray.
“We need a partner at the County who will work with us in keeping kids off the street and out of trouble,” declared Ernie Susi, president of the San Diego Probation Officers Association, in an early endorsement for Danon. “Steve will fight to keep critical funding in after-school, anti-gang and domestic violence programs.”
Verbatim, boilerplate statements were issued by other law-enforcement groups, including the San Diego Police Officers Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
Danon’s Democratic opponent is Dave Roberts, deputy mayor of Solana Beach, who agrees that juvenile gangs and youth drug abuse are serious issues in San Diego County. As the father of five adopted children with his male partner, he says the overlap between juvenile justice and the foster care system are certainly on his radar.
“I hear over and over from foster parents that have had good and bad stories to tell me about dealing with their family situations,” Roberts says.
However, these issues have been effectively hijacked by a sharp debate over the county supervisors’ role in funding a wide variety of community programs.
At the heart of the debate is a controversial “Neighborhood Reinvestment Program” which provides each of the five supervisors with $1 million to dole out at their discretion to non-profit organizations. The money is a drop in the bucket compared to the county's $4.8 billion budget, or the $53 million devoted to the probation department's juvenile-field services division.
The discretionary funds have become a key wedge issue.
According to Danon and other critics, crucial after-school programs have been starved of funds because of board members’ misplaced priorities.
The outgoing supervisor—Pam Slater-Price—was fined by a state ethics board after she failed to disclose hundreds of dollars’ worth of tickets from local opera and theater groups while simultaneously awarding those organizations Neighborhood Reinvestment grants.
Other supervisors have used the funds for questionable pet projects, from purchasing ammunition for gun clubs to supporting pro-life educational materials for religious schools. In op-eds and on the campaign trail, Danon has hammered Slater-Price and the board for keeping these grants, while voting to cut funding to crucial after-school programs.
Roberts, who was endorsed by Slater-Price when she decided not to seek reelection, says he'll put the Neighborhood Reinvestment funds toward after-school programs.
“I'm astounded that my opponent wants to get rid of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program because it’s specifically some of these alternative programs that that program that is used for, whether it's Little League or Boys and Girls Clubs or scouting activities,” Roberts says.
“Those are the types of things that I think give positive alternatives for youth.”
Danon would like to see these same kinds of “juvenile diversion” programs become a higher priority for the county as a whole.
“I want to tap into juvenile diversion funds from the Department of Justice,” says Danon, who would draw from his experience on the federal level. “We can be more aggressive in going after DOJ grants.”
At the same time, the county can claim some successes in juvenile policy. Despite controversy over the widespread use of pepper spray in juvenile halls, the county's probation department is perceived as making great strides in juvenile justice reform.
Over the last three years, the county documented a 45 percent decrease in youth referrals to the probation department, and the department reduced its number of supervised youth by 22 percent.
Yet the complexities of dealing with juvenile offenders in the courts are also barely on the radar screen in the county’s historically sleepy judicial races.
“You'd be surprised how little [juvenile justice] comes up,” admits private attorney Jim Miller, who is running for a judicial seat against Deputy District Attorney Robert Amador.
Judges aren't elected to a specific court, but are appointed to departments by the presiding judge. Although Amador's experience is largely on the criminal side, he doesn't expect to be assigned to the criminal division because several of his family members currently serve as prosecutors. Instead, he believes he'll be appointed to juvenile court based on his record.
While that might provide an opportunity for real debate, this contest has become politically charged by ideological quarrels, particularly after Gary Kreep—a lawyer best known for suing over President Barack Obama's birth certificate—won a seat on the Superior Court bench in June.
Both men vying for the judicial seat are Republicans, but Miller gained the endorsement of Tea Party groups and the state and local GOP. Amador, however, has the backing of most of the sitting judges as well as the county's bar association, which has pumped thousands into ads attacking Miller as unqualified for the job—turning the race effectively into a battle between the county’s political and legal establishments.
For community groups worried about San Diego County’s troubled youth, the race represents another lost opportunity to assess how either candidate might address developments in juvenile sentencing and detention that are propelling reforms across the country.
Amador's chief asset on the campaign trail is his experience, which includes talking about the more than 250 juvenile cases he's tried over his 30-year career.
Amador claims to have spearheaded rules that allow juvenile probation officers to carry firearms and supported policies that zero in on the juvenile probationers statistically most likely to re-offend. The trick for a judge, he says, is distinguishing the kids that make poor decisions because they're “young and dumb” from the dangerous offenders.
“The reality is the juvenile system works very well, in that about [70 percent] of juveniles that come into the system never come back again,” Amador says. “But what happens is you have other services that you need for other kids—group homes, residential placements—and what happens is that the violence kids don't do very well there. One violent kid can disrupt an entire program.”
Miller's experience with juvenile offenders is limited, though he describes how he successfully defended a high-school student who was arrested because his passengers were intoxicated even though he was the sober, designated driver.
For Miller, the fact that juvenile justice is low on the election agenda may be a boon.
“More people are concerned about family law and civil law, and that really plays to my strengths,” he says.
But whoever wins San Diego’s county races, youth advocates hope juvenile justice will be high on the agenda long after November’s election rhetoric is forgotten.
“If everyone comes together and works at this problem, then we can create something that can really get a hold on helping kids out and make a difference,” says Lankford, author of Born, Not Raised: Voices From Juvenile Hall. “I don't think it’s happening with the broken system we have now.”
Dave Maass is a staff writer at San Diego CityBeat and a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. He welcomes comments from readers.