Send the really bad kids to prison

Jose Gonzalez is a graduate of CSUS who works as a youth correctional counselor for CYA

In my three years as a youth correctional officer and 14 years as a youth correctional counselor with the California Youth Authority (CYA), I’ve seen good and bad in the system.

CYA provides treatment and training opportunities for wards in its charge. We hope to enhance wards’ decision-making skills and help them abandon criminal behavior. Our goal is for them to become successful, productive, law-abiding members of society. However, many wards don’t take advantage of rehabilitation efforts.

Today’s CYA wards are the most violent, incorrigible and complex in the history of the state. Among the worst problems are hard-core gang members who have exhausted their confinement time—they can’t be given additional confinement time unless they commit a new crime. Some of these hard-core gang members prefer being incarcerated in state prison. They will assault staff members or another ward to get there.

When they arrive at CYA, many wards have engaged in criminal behavior for years. Reasons for this include negligent parents, drugs or alcohol, gang membership, the absence of positive role models, and a decay in social and family values. We must try to create positive change in them. It’s an extremely difficult task attempted under difficult conditions.

Many choose to engage in gang activity; violence; and disrespectful, disruptive and self-destructive behavior. The key word here is “choose.” The wards, not the staff, make choices. Although staff members encourage wards to pursue positive changes, too few actually listen and apply the advice. It’s frustrating that many young people choose criminal rather than positive behavior.

It’s even more frustrating when the staff works with a ward to guide him in the right direction, only to have him violate parole or commit a new crime. Teachers also become frustrated when wards display incorrigible behavior in their classrooms—disrupting those who are trying to learn and make positive changes.

Rarely is this reported in the media. Instead, they’re quick to report on any staff wrongdoing, proven or not. That might make a good story, but it leaves out the full picture.

Many CYA staff—peace officers and non-peace officers alike—share these feelings. We’re doing what we can to change young lives. Perhaps our legislators need to look at getting the adult, violent and hard-core wards to state prison. Doing so would help transform CYA into a safer and more successful therapeutic environment.