Unlocked, Part I: Meant To Keep Youths Out Of Detention, Probation Often Leads Them There Nationwide, juvenile incarceration has dropped by half since 1999 — but the probations that have replaced it hold teens to sometimes subjective standards and often include electronic monitoring.

Meant To Keep Youths Out Of Detention, Probation Often Leads Them There

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The juvenile justice system has tried for years to figure out how best to rehabilitate young people in trouble. And recently there's been a shift from locking kids up to putting them on probation. We're going to hear now from Youth Radio. It's been investigating the juvenile probation system. And as Soraya Shockley discovered, the highly restrictive nature of juvenile probation often means that a young person winds up in detention anyway.

SORAYA SHOCKLEY, BYLINE: Brian Hopson from the Alameda County Probation Department is giving a tour of juvenile hall in San Leandro, Calif. This is a huge 360-bed detention center. When it opened eight years ago, the place was pretty much full. Today, nearly half the beds are empty.

BRIAN HOPSON: We're in a closed unit now, which is unit 12. It's been closed for some time. The lights come on, everything is still active. We're just not housing any kids here.

SHOCKLEY: Nationwide, over the past 16 years, juvenile incarceration dropped by half. Part of the reason - judges across the country are ordering young offenders into the probation system as an alternative to locking kids up. That's what happened to one 18-year-old I spoke to. I'm not naming him to protect his privacy and his juvenile records, which are protected by the law.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got in trouble for two pair of shoes.

SHOCKLEY: The two pairs of sneakers he stole when he was 15 were worth around $85. This was his second arrest for what the court found to be a minor offense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then from there everything changed because that was my first time on probation, so everything changed.

SHOCKLEY: Instead of sending him to juvenile hall, a judge put this young person on probation, which can last until you're 21. His court orders included nearly two dozen conditions he had to follow.

KATE WEISBURD: Two - attend classes or job on time and regularly, be of good behavior and perform well. Three...

SHOCKLEY: The teen's attorney, Kate Weisburd, goes through the list. Some requirements are straightforward, like enroll in school; others are more subjective.

WEISBURD: Be of good citizenship and good conduct.

SHOCKLEY: For adults on probation, the main requirement is not committing a new crime. For kids on probation, it's more about staying out of trouble and demonstrating that they can follow rules set by the court. If you mess up, you can be locked up.

WEISBURD: Fifteen - obey parents or guardians.

SHOCKLEY: That's one of the rules Weisburd's client allegedly broke - pushing him from probation into juvenile hall. He also had an electronic monitor on his ankle to track whether he stayed within certain locations. He was sent to juvenile hall numerous times because he didn't comply.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I just wanted to go outside and take a walk or something, but then I would get in trouble.

SHOCKLEY: His mom says the GPS tracking was confining and hard on him and the family.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My son, he doesn't want to eat all day. He wants to only sleep. It was really hard. He doesn't have a lot - hope - esperanza. And I feel sad when I see my son like that.

SHOCKLEY: Nearly every state allows some form of electronic monitoring for juvenile offenders.

CHIEF OF PROBATION BRENT CARDALL: We protect the public, but our primary focus is to change behavior.

SHOCKLEY: Brent Cardall is the chief of probation in Yolo County, Calif. Last year, probation violations were reported as by far the top reason kids were incarcerated in his county. But Cardall says some of that is beyond his control.

CARDALL: We're not the judge, and we don't tell the youth where they go and what they do. We enforce the orders of the court, and we have a mandate to report those violations to the court.

SHOCKLEY: Cardall's county is working on reforms to get better outcomes for youth in the system, implementing new programs that support the whole family. David Muhammad works with numerous probation departments across the country on reform, and he says the alternatives to jail often aren't achieving their original goals.

DAVID MUHAMMAD: Many of the young people when they first engage in the system would be considered low-risk, and involvement in the system increases their risk. There's a mountain of research that says when the justice system touches a young person that their likelihood of dropping out of school skyrockets. Their likelihood of later being involved in adult criminal justice system skyrockets.

SHOCKLEY: Juvenile justice is designed to hold young people accountable for their crimes and provide rehabilitation. But attorney Kate Weisburd says probation can sometimes make things worse.

WEISBURD: So it is ironic that electronic monitoring is seen as an alternative to detention and yet is often what leads our clients to be detained.

SHOCKLEY: Probation is intended as an alternative to locking kids up. Yet in some parts of the country, almost half of incarcerated youth - the majority of them kids of color - are behind bars because of technical violations committed while on probation. For NPR News, I'm Soraya Shockley.

MONTAGNE: And that story was produced by Youth Radio as part of their juvenile justice series, Unlocked.

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