OP-ED: Spotlight on Solano: Youth Thrive Through County Innovation

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Today, juvenile justice reform and innovation is underway in California and nationwide. The Missouri and Washington models of juvenile justice programming are renowned, as they should be. They present a much-needed road map for other jurisdictions strategizing for systemic change. However, California may not need to look so far away to find the answers. With 58 counties, California is a hotbed of innovation, and Solano County is forging the way.

Tucked between the state seat, Sacramento, and the liberal metropolis San Francisco, the county has both rural and urban landscapes and a high-crime center in its biggest city, Vallejo. One of the original counties in California, it has a population of more than 400,000 people including a dwindling youth population of 45,000. Despite higher than average youth felony arrest rates, the Solano County Probation Department has a long history of juvenile justice innovation.

In 1959, Solano County dedicated itself to taking responsibility for its high-risk youth. Fouts Springs Youth Facility was built as a regional alternative to reliance on the state youth correctional system, and it accepted youth who had serious, violent delinquent histories and who had failed to successfully complete other placements. The decision to create a local custody option for high-risk youth was developed out of a recognition that youth eventually return to their communities, which made reentry planning and aftercare essential components of effective juvenile justice programming. Unfortunately, the state has not been able to provide adequate reentry services to the youth in its care due to the sparsity of its facilities and parole services.

A new study of youth served by Fouts Springs from 2005 to 2011 shows that not only was the program more successful than the state facilities, with a 35 percent recidivism rate compared to the state’s 75 percent recidivism rate, but it was also significantly cheaper to operate. Fouts Springs cost approximately $32,100 per youth for its average length of stay, whereas an average placement in the state youth correctional facilities costs around $778,500. While counties paid a nominal $213 per month to commit youth to the state facilities until 2012 (when a larger flat rate fee was introduced), a commitment to Fouts Springs would set a county back $4,200 per month. The fiscal disincentive paired with the decrease of youth crime statewide lessened the demand for a regional program and resulted in the closure of Fouts Springs in 2011.

Yet, Solano County has continued to aggressively pursue adaptable, individually-focused, holistic approaches to serving justice-involved youth. The Police Department uses citation and diversion practices at the point of contact, and the Probation Department operates additional diversion programs for low-level and misdemeanant youth, a day reporting center and intensive supervision to reduce the use of detention. Additionally, in fiscal year 2006-2007, the Probation Department and District Attorney’s Office collaborated to develop a youth felony diversion program, further reducing the county’s reliance on detention. For youth requiring out-of-home placement, the county operates a 30-bed residential program close to the community that includes a family-focused therapeutic milieu.

Without Fouts Springs, the county has struggled to find a suitable alternative for serving its very high-risk youth. Undeterred, the county is currently adapting a separated unit of its juvenile hall to provide long-term custody and many of the components of the Fouts Springs model to high-risk youth. The unit will introduce a stronger continuum of available aftercare due to its central location. The county is already experiencing the success of its self-sufficient local system, with youth crime declines that mirror statewide trends without resorting to high use of detention or traditional law enforcement crackdowns.

Although many California counties and other states scramble to adopt recent juvenile justice reforms and evidence-based programming, these are old-hat to Solano County officials. Like oft-cited examples Missouri and Washington, Solano County has a well-established model of systemic change founded on staff training, youth engagement, law enforcement leadership, and community support. Solano County stands as a learning opportunity for California and other states continuing to invest in juvenile justice reforms that recognize the failure of state institutional care and adopt community-based alternatives.

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