Community Partnership, Hard Work Can Create True Reforms

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denisestacyThanks to video cameras on phones, YouTube and Facebook Live, millions of people now bear witness to events once only experienced by people in certain neighborhoods.

Increased media coverage of horrific images of police violence against people of color over the last several years, substantiated by research confirming that people of color are treated differently by law enforcement, are forcing those in power to begin to admit a reality that is not new to many of us: Institutional racism is real and is the foundation upon which many of our critical systems have been built.

As we continue to face this reality, important and difficult discussions are happening about how to address these issues and bridge the gap between systems responsible for providing much needed services and the communities they serve.

Thus it is important to examine some of the successful strategies in place, strategies that work daily to push systems to be fair and just.

One such strategy is Huckleberry Youth Programs’ Community Assessment and Resource Center (CARC), which has been working to humanize San Francisco’s juvenile justice system and push the system to better serve our youth and their families for the past 18 years.

Based in community, not detention center

Huckleberry CARC is unique among Community Assessment Centers (CACs) in that it is located in the community with a probation officer and sheriff stationed at its site. Unlike other CACs, many located at juvenile detention centers, eligible San Francisco youth detained by the police arrive directly at Huckleberry CARC, never to see the inside of a police station or juvenile hall.

This is possible because San Francisco is the only city in the county and our Juvenile Probation Department is separate from Adult Probation.

Research had established that CACs worked but there was the missing element of actually being located in the community. Being community-based was key to engaging youth and families and creating a diversion program within the juvenile justice system that was not punitive.

In Huckleberry CARC’s early days, the program experienced resistance from law enforcement and juvenile probation. Some police officers considered Huckleberry CARC case managers “civilians” and wanted to speak only to the probation officer located on site.

However, through persistent outreach and our ability to demonstrate success, this never happens today. The program has been fully integrated into the juvenile justice system.

Part of bigger reforms

First, the context of the evolution of Huckleberry CARC. Huckleberry Youth Programs gained widespread recognition for developing the nation’s first runaway youth shelter in San Francisco in 1967 and played a major role in passing the Federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act of 1974, which decriminalized status offenses (i.e. truancy and running away).

Despite the exit of status offenders from the juvenile justice system before Huckleberry CARC opened in 1998, concerns were mounting over San Francisco’s juvenile crime rate and an overcrowded detention facility. Mental health services and effective early interventions were not part of the juvenile justice system.

Huckleberry CARC began as part of the mayor’s local action plan for juvenile justice reform to help youth arrested for lesser crimes stay out of detention and avoid further involvement in the juvenile justice system. It came from a lot of very hard work over a very long time.

Today, Huckleberry CARC is one of the most extensive community-based juvenile justice prevention programs in the United States, serving about 30 percent of youth arrested in San Francisco. As a result of Huckleberry CARC and other reform efforts, juvenile detention bookings have decreased by 63 percent over the last 15 years in San Francisco.

The purpose was to provide a single point of entry for assessment, service integration, referral, booking, crisis intervention and mentoring for youth ages 11 through 17 taken into custody by police in San Francisco for low- to midlevel offenses.

Over the years, Huckleberry CARC case managers have successfully worked with youth to reintegrate them into school, arrange for special educational services, get them mental health services, help them complete community service and probation requirements and connect them to recreation, art, athletic and youth development programs. Huckleberry CARC is effective, highly regarded and considered a model diversion program. Research by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency indicated youth who completed Huckleberry CARC were significantly less likely to be rearrested.

Internal evaluation of the program consistently indicates 75 percent of youth complete the program and fulfill community service/probation requirements and 75 percent of youth are not rearrested within the year following program completion.

Partnerships are key

Huckleberry staff work diligently to make sure youth get the best possible personalized services available. We remain successful due to the strong partnerships built within our community. I have worked at Huckleberry CARC since 1999, one year after the program began. Stacy Sciortino, program director, has worked for Huckleberry for nearly 15 years. During this time we have seen the program and the system significantly improve.

During hours of operation, police call all juvenile arrests into Huckleberry CARC. This presents the opportunity for open dialogue between Huckleberry, the arresting police officer(s) and juvenile probation about the outcome of that arrest. When the offense does not clearly mandate that the youth be booked and detained, Huckleberry collaborates with law enforcement and advocates for a better outcome.

About 30 percent of arrested youth come to Huckleberry CARC for their arrest intervention, legal education and psychosocial assessment. Because the experience of being arrested is a crisis for the youth and their family, diversion to Huckleberry CARC allows case managers the opportunity to provide immediate, trauma-informed family support.

The value of an immediate arrest intervention is that Huckleberry CARC sees the youth beyond the offense.

We know that youth arrested are disproportionately youth of color and how important it is for us to have culturally competent staff who come from the same communities and backgrounds as the youth bought here. As such, we have the opportunity to work from inside the system to disrupt the root causes of repeated incarceration and discrimination of youth of color in our community.

We engage youth in open and honest conversations about their legal situation, what’s happening in their home environment, their family relationships, educational challenges, peer struggles, interest, needs and vocational opportunities, all of which are pieces of a puzzle that make up their whole life. Rather than focus on their crime, we focus on the difficult situations in their life that got them arrested.

Through this process, youth and their families begin to trust Huckleberry CARC and understand that our role is to support, assist and advocate for their best interest. This is our opportunity to humanize a system that has traditionally been punitive and oppressive.

Restorative community conferencing

The expansion of services over the years include diverting an increasing number of felony offenders, with the implementation of restorative community conferencing (RCC) and deferred charging initiatives.

RCC provides youth arrested for serious offenses (previously ineligible to have their case handled out of court) and their victims with an opportunity for restorative justice. The program brings together the arrested youth, their victim, law enforcement and others to discuss the crime and develop a plan to repair the harm done to the victim, community and self.

Deferred charging grants eligible youth charged with felony offenses up to 60 days to work with CARC, complete a case plan and have their case handled out of court. Prior to deferred charging, all CARC youth charged with felonies would receive CARC services, but still face formal charges through the courts. CARC has also recently expanded services to out-of-county youth arrested in San Francisco.

The juvenile justice system in San Francisco has come a long way, and allowing for true community collaboration has been the difference. It has taken years of hard work and persistence to get the system to this place of collaboration.

While there is still work to be done, together we have made great headway. As a community partner, Huckleberry is in a position to impact policy decisions, process and outcomes. The discussions on how to create real system change, how to hold systems accountable, how to address institutional bias and racism, and how to build the expectation that the system must provide high-quality, impactful interactions with people in need are real.

Cultivating true partnership between law enforcement and community-based providers can support the evolution of these critical systems. We suggest having strong community allies embedded within systems to ensure that policy changes are discussed and implemented as a way to make and sustain systemic change.

Denise Coleman has led Huckleberry Youth Program’s Community Assessment & Resource Center in San Francisco since 1999. She has worked in the social services field for 20-plus years and is an expert in the juvenile justice community.

Stacy Sciortino joined Huckleberry CARC as a case manager and currently leads the program as the director.

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