Santa Clara County a model to stop incarceration of girls
Initiative will give grants to four other counties to provide support diversion of young women
After spending her teenage years in and out of juvenile detention, Arabella Guevara was used to crowded conditions such as mattresses on the floor and girls triple-bunked in cells meant for two.
But nothing prepared Guevara for her final stint at the 96-bed William F. James Ranch in Morgan Hill. As other young women finished their terms and headed home, no one arrived to replace them. By June 2020, Guevara, who had been arrested on car theft and burglary charges, found herself alone with a handful of probation staff.
“It was depressing,” said Guevara, 19, of San Jose. “You're already away from your family and friends. And now you're just by yourself.”
What Guevara didn't know was that the quiet around her reflected a flurry of activity on the outside involving the local courts, probation department, prosecutors, mental health providers and community groups. Santa Clara County's Juvenile Justice Gender Responsive Task Force had been meeting regularly in service of an ambitious goal: ending the incarceration of girls.
Amid dramatic declines in the number of incarcerated youth over two decades, Santa Clara County is one of a growing number of areas looking critically at the practice of locking up girls and genderexpansive youth (a term that includes transgender, nonbinary and gender-fluid youth). The new approach centers on providing community-based support while taking a hard look at whether girls actually pose a public safety threat. Many are now diverted before they ever reach juvenile hall or a courtroom.
The Santa Clara County initiative is considered so successful that California officials are launching an effort to replicate it statewide.
From 2018 to 2020, the number of girls admitted to juvenile detention facilities in Santa Clara County dropped by 58%, according to the New York-based Vera Institute for Justice. In a one-year period ending in April 2022, the number of girls in the county juvenile hall was either zero or one. County officials say there are currently three girls locked up, including two housed locally rather than in the state youth prison system, which is now shutting down. By comparison, in December there were 67 boys in the county's juvenile hall.
The effort to divert girls from incarceration is mirrored in several other states, including Hawaii, which recently reported it did not have a single girl in its long-term commitment facility.
A different approach
Santa Clara County launchsed its effort in 2015, focusing initially on improving conditions for girls and gender-expansive youth in juvenile detention facilities.
At one meeting of the genderfocused juvenile justice task force, then-assistant Chief Probation Officer Nick Birchard, who was recently named probation chief, proposed a bolder challenge: “Why are we trying to create better programming for girls in custody?” he asked. “Why don't we try to get them out?”
Birchard's colleagues agreed. But first, they needed a clearer understanding of what was landing girls in secure custody to begin with. That assistance came from the Vera Institute, which is pushing to zero out the imprisonment of girls and gender-expansive youth nationwide by 2030.
Researchers from Vera and New York University reviewed the files of more than 70 girls involved with the delinquency court and found that 80% had prior involvement with the child welfare system. On average, each girl had been the subject of 10 reports of child abuse or neglect. Eighty percent had experienced
homelessness or housing instability.
Sixty percent of those in detention had low to medium scores on a risk assessment tool designed to determine whether they posed enough threat to public safety to justify detention. Property offenses were the most common charges.
The data showed that police were taking girls into custody not because they were dangerous but because they were vulnerable. Law enforcement had come to rely on juvenile hall as a way to get them off the streets and connect them with social services.
The problem with that approach, reformers argue, is that protecting girls is not the role of a locked institution, and incarceration brings with it traumas of its own.
“Those services should be provided out in the community,” Birchard said. “We shouldn't involve a young person in the justice system at all, if possible.”
`An invisible population'
Former juvenile court Judge
Katherine Lucero, who was instrumental in launching Santa Clara County's gender task force, has since been named head of California's Office of Youth and Community Restoration. In her state role, she is spearheading broader efforts to stop the incarceration of girls, who Lucero says too often remain “an invisible population.”
During her time on the bench from 2001 to January 2022, Lucero was increasingly troubled by the reasons girls were brought before her.
“Girls were coming in for lowerlevel offenses, often committed with older men,” she said. “I was seeing broken relationships with families, and sometimes a really angry parent who did not want that girl to come home — and that really old narrative of locking a girl up for her own safety.”
Today, Birchard said, local police understand that unless a girl faces serious charges, the probation department, which runs the juvenile hall, is likely to turn her away at intake.
“They can cite and release; they can contact a parent,” Birchard said, “but they can't bring them into custody for something lowlevel because we're going to release them anyway.”
The last girl in the building
In the spring of 2020, while she was still being held at the ranch, Guevara was on Facetime with her mother when a supervisor interrupted the call.
“Pack your things,” he told her. “You're getting out.”
During Guevara's time at the ranch, Lucero had met with Jessica Nowlan, then the executive director of the Young Women's Freedom Center, a statewide organization that provides support and advocacy to young women and transgender youth who have grown up in poverty or in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Together, they laid plans to launch one of the center's several California satellite locations in Santa Clara County and secured $1 million from the state to fund the collaboration.
Now, each time a girl lands in juvenile court, judges call on the Freedom Center to help the young women to identify and pursue goals such as getting a driver's license, enrolling in college, finding full-time work or securing housing.
With such support, Guevara reached a crucial goal: getting her education back on track. Having entered juvenile hall with just 15 high school credits, she has since managed to graduate a year early.
Guevara said the juvenile court's new approach helped her turn her life around. And in her current role as a youth organizer for the Freedom Center, she is helping other girls like her to avoid jail time altogether.
When she came before the court, Guevara said, Lucero always wanted to know what was going on at home and how she was feeling — and it inspired her: “I could see that she actually cared.”