What about Roberto?

AB 1655 would transfer responsibility for youth corrections back to local regions

Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth holds up a photo taken of her brother Roberto when he was young and hadn’t yet begun his tenure at the California Youth Authority’s harshest prison in Chino. “Now he’s always scared,” she said. “He doesn’t trust anybody anymore.”

Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth holds up a photo taken of her brother Roberto when he was young and hadn’t yet begun his tenure at the California Youth Authority’s harshest prison in Chino. “Now he’s always scared,” she said. “He doesn’t trust anybody anymore.”

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

When Roberto Ortiz was 14 he did a stupid thing. He and three others were caught having stolen an assortment of items from a friend’s garage in south Sacramento: a stapler, some pens, a teddy bear and other odds and ends.

Unwittingly, his mother, Maria, did something perhaps just as foolhardy: She believed the juvenile-justice system could help rehabilitate her boy. So she called the cops on her son and his friends—all of them between the ages of 13 and 14—because she wanted them to know that stealing was serious. She wanted to get her son help before he graduated to stealing something more than teddy bears and staplers.

For Maria’s belief in the system, both her son and she have paid dearly.

Roberto received six years for stealing $180 worth of items from the friend’s open garage and another year and four months for shooting out car windows with a BB gun several weeks after the burglary.

“If I knew then what I know now, I never would have turned him in,” Maria said. “There’s no rehabilitation in CYA. They only train them to be criminals.”

Roberto, now 20, has served five years of a seven-year, four-month sentence in the California Youth Authority’s harshest prison, the Herman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino. Set aside the specifics of Roberto’s situation for a moment and know that the Chino facility was held up as the rule, not the exception, in a particularly damning inspector general’s report released in February, detailing unsafe and neglectful conditions within the CYA system.

Enter Assembly Bill 1655 by Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, which proposes to close the Department of Juvenile Justice, more commonly called CYA, and transfer responsibility for youth corrections back to counties and regions. Doing so, proponents say, not only will cost less, but also will reduce the recidivism rate by focusing on true rehabilitation that includes education, mentoring, life-skills classes, regular health-care monitoring and a host of other services currently not being delivered through CYA.

AB 1655 made it through the Assembly Public Safety Committee on a 5-2 vote along party lines and now moves to Appropriations, its next hurdle before a floor vote.

To understand what’s at stake, one must understand CYA’s track record. In 1996, the youth-prison system incarcerated 10,000 young people; that figure has now dropped to about 2,600.

“It’s not that fewer kids are being arrested,” said Jakada Imani, spokesperson for Books Not Bars, a nonprofit organization fighting to close CYA. “It’s just that counties that have successful [diversion] programs are keeping them at home because they don’t trust the state.”

It’s easy to see why.

The state’s largest youth-correctional facility, the Chino facility, “still keeps large numbers of wards isolated for all but two hours a day, fails to provide them with mandated counseling and education, and has neglected to prevent them from covering their windows and having ropes and other potentially dangerous materials in their rooms,” the inspector general reported in February.

What’s more, the same conditions that existed at the facility in 2005 were reported on, yet never fixed, the report found. This after the state spent $100 million to correct the problems.

Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth has a hard time holding back the tears when she talks about Roberto and his confinement. Only 13 at the time he was taken away, she idealized her older brother. Elizabeth remembers him as outgoing and friendly to everyone—not the way he is now.

“Now he’s always scared,” she said, relaying how her brother acts when she travels to Chino to see him. “He eats looking over his shoulder, even around us. He puts his arms around his food, like he’s afraid someone’s going to come over and steal it. He says he just stays in his room all the time because he doesn’t want to come out and be [goaded] into a fight and get more time tacked on. He doesn’t trust anybody anymore.”

That lack of trust has been passed on to Maria and Elizabeth, neither of whom would use their real first names for this article for fear of reprisal aimed at Roberto, who’s name also has been changed for his protection.

“I’ve seen what happens when people speak to the media,” Maria said. “Roberto knows a boy who got beat up by the guards when his mother spoke out about the conditions there. I’m not taking any chances.

“He doesn’t sleep well now,” Maria continued. “You hear so much about rape inside. He says he sleeps and wakes up often so no one jumps him in the middle of the night.”

But Maria’s nightmare began before he was ever sent to CYA, when he was first sentenced and held at the Sacramento County Juvenile Hall, where authorities there first judged him to be schizophrenic, thanks to a street drug—Maria still doesn’t know its origin—that mimicked its symptoms. Doctors put him on the powerful antipsychotic Zyprexa and the antidepressant Effexor, neither of which are generally recommended for prescribing to children because of their propensity to cause violent rages and suicidal thoughts. In her son’s case, Maria found out something was wrong when she went to visit and saw one of his eyes was bloody.

“I asked him why. He said, ‘I tried to pop my eyeball out,’” Maria said.

Maria petitioned a judge to have Roberto taken off the meds and he was, but then he was transferred to the Sacramento County Boys Ranch, presumably to serve out the remainder of his time. There, however, Roberto said he felt he had to “choose sides” his mother said, between the Nortanos and Surenos gangs inside. Or, rather, the choice was made for him.

“You have to pick a side or you’ll get jumped by everybody,” explained Elizabeth.

Being aligned with a gang, however, didn’t go over well with authorities, and after too many fights, Roberto was transferred to CYA in June 2003. (The three other youths received little or no time for their involvement in the garage burglary.)

Although a friend of the powerful prison guard’s union, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already has set in motion a plan to empty out half of the youth in CYA by proposing in his 2007-08 budget to transfer $94,000 per inmate to the counties to house and rehabilitate youth in their communities.

That’s a significant cost savings compared to the $216,000 per youth it’s taking now to house them at CYA— a price tag for which the taxpayers get a 75 percent recidivism rate within three years of release.

“His proposal indicates that he values moving youth to the local level where there is access to family and community. He’s decidedly halfway there,” said Lieber. As for fighting the CCPOA and its friends in the Legislature, Lieber said the best arguments for her bill are the facts themselves.

Representatives from the CCPOA did not return calls for comment, and repeated calls for comment to Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, vice chairman of Assembly Public Safety Committee, went unreturned. Committee watchers noted neither Republican on the committee asked questions or made comments before voting “no.”

In a letter opposing the bill, (representatives did not show up at the committee hearing), CCPOA’s spokesman Lance Corcoran wrote, “We want to be clear that our defense of the mission of DJJ is not a defense of how the current administration has managed the division.”

Still, Corcoran said the administration’s failures do not negate the need for a “viable juvenile justice agency” at the state level. The prison guard’s union says it worries that if CYA closes, youths will be forced into adult prisons, a claim the bill’s author says is specious.

Lieber points to counties already running successful programs, like Los Angeles, Alameda and Santa Clara, and says those can be expanded within three to six months to take in additional wards. She acknowledges that the harder charge will be what to do with juvenile “lifers” in the system, as well as those who are severely, emotionally disturbed and/or violent. But Lieber is confident those details can be worked out.

She and her supporters aren’t flying blind here. They’re looking at successful closures of youth state penitentiaries in states like Missouri, which closed its youth prison in 1983 and replaced it with regional home-like rehabilitation centers.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Books Not Bars’ Imani said. “The Department of Juvenile Justice is the Titanic. No question it’s sinking. The counties are the life rafts. AB 1655 is the pathway to the life rafts.”

From Maria’s perspective, Books Not Bars is worthy of support. She goes to their meetings. But she’s not holding out much hope. Next March, Roberto turns 21. At that time, he should be eligible for parole, having served six years of his sentence.

“Six years for $180 worth of stuff? At CYA? At that time, I had faith in the legal system and I believed in justice. But now? There’s no justice,” she said.