A Celebration in the Juvenile Courtroom

Posted on March 8, 2013

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Looking Up

The gallery in the juvenile courtroom is full. As the judge pulls the next file from his stack of juvenile probation cases, he looks up at a young man seated next to his Public Defender. His probation officer is across the room along with the District Attorney. This is a daily sight at the Sonoma County Juvenile Court, but today is different. Today, there are balloons and flowers, and the people in the gallery are smiling. Today, the young man facing the judge is graduating from the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program, marking the completion of his probation period for an offense committed six months ago.

It was not an easy process for him, or for the 72 other ACT graduates before him. Histories of abuse and neglect, addiction to drugs and alcohol, struggles with mental illness, involvement in gangs, failure to complete high school – these challenges serve as real, daunting barriers for the juvenile offenders in the program. But with the help of ACT, a community-based program of Sunny Hills Services created to address the mental health needs of juvenile offenders and their families, all of our graduates found ways to navigate these challenges and complete the program successfully.

A recently published report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States, February 2013) states that improving both public safety and youth development demand more effective interventions than correctional facilities provide. Other studies show that the current cost of incarcerating an adult in California has topped $50,000 annually. So, not only are these facilities costly to the community, they are largely ineffective. The report goes on to say that moving forward, communities should invest in promising alternatives to incarceration that supervise, sanction and treat youth effectively in their homes and communities. And that’s exactly what Sunny Hills Services is doing with the ACT program.

Since 2007, Sunny Hills Services has worked with Sonoma County Juvenile Probation, Sonoma County Juvenile Court, and the Sonoma County Department of Mental Health to provide a collaborative, wraparound approach to treatment that operates across the mental health, juvenile justice, child welfare and education systems. Through the program, juvenile offenders with mental health challenges are prevented from reoffending and returning to juvenile hall through the use of interventions that are directed at helping them fulfill the conditions of their probation (attend school, keep curfew, complete restitution, remain drug free, and avoid association with gang affiliated youth). The ACT team focuses on improving the parent child relationship and ensuring that youth address their mental health and developmental needs to ultimately turn their lives around.

The work can be quite challenging – requiring patience, understanding, empathy and optimism – and transformations don’t happen overnight. The road to graduation comes with much resistance at first, with youth not always fully buying into the program and accepting the goals set out for them. But with time, hard work, and a team approach, positive outcomes are possible. ACT engages people from all aspects of the youth’s life – probation agency staff, family and community members, school district staff, and other caring adults – to reinforce the idea that youth are supported in their effort to improve their lives. It’s a total team effort and it pays off. In 2012, 30 youth and families who graduated from ACT within 6 months to a year reported the following:

  • 70% said they are doing better in school and/or work
  • 73% said they get along better with family members
  • 80% said they get along better with friends
  • 83% said they are better at handling everyday life
  • 83% said they are better able to cope when things go wrong

And perhaps most importantly, of the youth served, only 23% re-entered the juvenile justice system, compared to the 74% of juveniles statewide who re-entered the system within one year of being arrested. These powerful parting words from the Judge at the most recent ACT program graduation ceremony reflect the success of both the ACT program and the youth who participate in it:

In honor of your outstanding performance and dedication, we gladly present this award to you for completion of the graduation requirements for the ACT program. Awarded in the city of Santa Rosa, today’s date. We’re so happy to see this day. So, to make it official, at this point we are going to terminate probation’s services. I know that sounds terrible, to terminate things, but in this case, it’s a good thing. And all proceedings that were brought on your behalf are hereby dismissed. Good luck!

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