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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. California's prison system is such a disaster -overcrowded and violent - that Governor Arnold yesterday declared the system in a state of emergency. Lockups for young offenders are also in trouble. And so some counties are creating ways to keep troubled kids out of the state system. Kids like Daniel, a teenager from Santa Cruz. Reporter Judy Campbell from member station KQED has Daniel's story.

JUDY CAMPBELL: It isn't easy to get Daniel to talk about himself, or even to talk in full sentences. He's 17, he wears baggy clothes, and has an almost shaved head. But he's polite and seems more shy than menacing. So when he does talk about his time in his county's juvenile hall, or juvi, it can be a little shocking.

DANIEL: Because everybody that goes to juvi goes back to the streets. So I knew I was going to go back. And I'm going to keep going, I think. I don't think it's going to stop.

CAMPBELL: Daniel was confined to his house for weeks this summer on home arrest for several probation violations, including carrying a knife and getting in fights. He says he's not officially a gang member, but he's been busted for wearing gang colors and for hanging out with gang members on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. By all accounts, Daniel used to be a great student, a model kid until about two years ago. That's when his stepfather - who raised him since he was a toddler, and family members say was Daniel's mentor - was sent to prison for 22 years to life for sexually and physically abusing family members. Ask Daniel about his stepfather, and he starts picking at his palm until patches of skin have been gouged away.

DANIEL: I don't know him.

CAMPBELL: Were you close to him, when...

DANIEL: Nope.

CAMPBELL: Your sister said after what happened with your stepfather happened, that you kind of changed.

DANIEL: A little bit. I never drank or smoked, or I never got in trouble.

CAMPBELL: But after his stepfather was put away, Daniel started experimenting with pot, black tar heroin, and he started drinking - a lot. Santa Cruz is a beach town. There's lots of hanging out and lots of gang activity. Eventually, Daniel was kicked out of school, and he started getting arrested for fighting. He was sent to a small, alternative school. Santa Cruz County is a model for community-based interventions, and the school is housed in the building of Barrios Unidos, a youth violence prevention group. He immediately liked it.

DANIEL: There's a lot of people I could relate to so - and it's a small class. Like they pay more attention to you in that school.

CAMPBELL: Barrios Unidos aims to create community and instill pride and responsibility. The building has bright murals of people dancing, celebrating the joy in life. It also has a full-size replica of the state prison cell - just a reminder of how bad it could get. Daniel became close with Barrios assistant director, O.T. Quintero.

Mr. O.T. QUINTERO (Assistant Director, Barrios Unidos): We became his surrogate family. In fact, I'm his, in some ways, his surrogate father. And somehow he's latched on to us. He'll come here when there's not even school because he doesn't have a lot of places to go and he identifies this place as his family. So we've been able - we're one of those anchors.

CAMPBELL: Quintero says Daniel ended up with the best attendance record in school. He got a job at a printer next door. Daniel even went to Washington, D.C. with Barrios Unidos for a youth summit.

Mr. QUINTERO: Even though he's a little quite and reserved, but he's been willing to take the risk and say, you know what? I'll go with you guys. So he wound up spending a week, and he came back and he's now our East Coast representative for Barrios Unidos. But at the same time, we're competing against those other worlds out there. Because when he leaves here, you know, he's running with the homeboys and you know he's doing what they do. And sometimes he gets caught up in the madness.

CAMPBELL: The madness is a story written in the knife slashes on Daniel's arms and the raw gash on his skull from fights. And it's a madness that escalated on the street while Daniel sat out most of the summer on home arrest. Late in the summer, Daniel is outside of juvenile court waiting for a hearing. He's tense. Two of his friends were recently shot in a drive-by. And a couple of days earlier, a man was killed near the boardwalk and Daniel heard his girlfriend Cindy was there.

DANIEL: I heard about it and I was all worried. Because I don't know if she was the one that shot him.

CAMPBELL: In fact, Cindy was arrested the day after he said this for murder and attempted murder for allegedly encouraging their friend Tony to shoot in what police say was a gang crime. Cindy has since pleaded not guilty and sits in jail. Daniel believes fallout was on the way.

DANIEL: I know I'm going to get shot at one of these days. Because that guy that got killed, they're going to come back to retaliate.

CAMPBELL: In the days after his court appearance, Daniel was back at home worried and missing his girlfriend.

DANIEL: She's sweet. She's - I don't know. She' mean. She's both. She's like mean, you know, in a sweet kind of way. I don't know. But I like it, though.

CAMPBELL: Quintero knew Daniel's friend Tony had been arrested for the murder, and he stopped by to see how he was doing.

DANIEL: If I wouldn't have been on house arrest, I would have been with Tony.

Mr. QUINTERO: You would have been?

DANIEL: Yup.

Mr. QUINTERO: Whew.

DANIEL: Because when I was on house arrest when my homeboy got shot, too.

Mr. QUINTERO: And yet you're still here.

DANIEL: Yup.

CAMPBELL: Quintero told Daniel he had a job for him to keep him out of trouble when he finished home arrest. And he made some other suggestions.

Mr. QUINTERO: I was going to say tonight's Friday night, and you get to mop...

(Soundbite of knocking sound)

Mr. QUINTERO: ...and they say vamonos. What are you going to do to keep from being in the paper?

DANIEL: I don't know.

CAMPBELL: Quintero tried to give some common sense advice that Daniel didn't seem to be getting from anyone else. And he let him know he's paying attention - like noticing that when trouble starts, Daniel is often drunk or high.

Mr. QUINTERO: So what we have to do, mi hijo, is make sure that we don't get to that point. So, okay.

DANIEL: No drinking?

Mr. QUINTERO: Well, because I'm not going to tell you, you know, not to do this or not to do that. But what I am trying to tell you is that you don't cross that point when you can't think. You follow me?

DANIEL: Yeah.

Mr. QUINTERO: Because once you cross that point, the next thing you know, you're in the paper.

CAMPBELL: After the summer, Daniel got off home arrest and he started showing up for school again. And Quintero said he's passed a huge test. Daniel was badly beaten in a fight, and after much discussion, he decided not to go out on the streets to retaliate. Speaking of Barrios Unidos, Quintero says he's optimistic.

Mr. QUINTERO: If you and I were to bet today, I bet you he's going to graduate. And then the story continues. How it end, I'm very hopeful. But I know one thing. I know how it'd end if we weren't here. He'd be either dead or locked up. And the fact that we've either prolonged that or we've actually kept that from happening is a miracle in itself.

CAMPBELL: And the next miracle, Quintero says, is simply to get Daniel to believe he has other options and can live a life different than the one he's living now - either locked up or facing gunfire. For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.

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