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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight

Working to Save Troubled '8%'

August 21, 2000|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ryan, at 15, can smile pensively about the Ryan of two years before: "I liked to mess with people; I didn't want people messin' with me."

Those who knew this juvenile offender at 13 have their own view. "A real terror," probation counselor Ron Maciel says of those days. "He had his own program, and wasn't interested in anybody else's."

Since then, however, Ryan has been hammered with two years of the 8% Solution.

Now we'll see just how well it's paid off.

A judge last week terminated Ryan's probation; he's on his own. That's the county's goal for all 362 juvenile offenders, like Ryan, in its Repeat Offender Prevention Program, or ROPP. Let them fly with their own wings--and not wind up in jail again.

County corrections officials call ROPP "the 8% Solution."

It started in Orange County, and is spreading throughout California as the most promising experiment yet in how to reduce juvenile crime. Seven other counties have created their own versions, but all have a common goal: intense, widespread help to the hard-core juveniles--about 8%--who are at risk to commit the most crime.

Is it working?

It's too soon to tell. After nearly 10 years in planning, Orange County's program is only three years into its treatment phase. Reliable statistics are expected to be ready by 2001 and the state Board of Corrections has extended grants for the plan to 2002.

"This looks promising," said Al Lammers, the Board of Corrections' field representative who oversees the programs in eight counties. "I think they're on the right track. What was going on before wasn't working for everybody."

What went on before was that all juveniles who committed an offense were treated the same: If the judge didn't put them in jail, they were assigned to a probation officer. The probation officer would meet with the juvenile as often as needed--usually once to twice a month--and would assign the probationer necessary help, such as drug abuse or alcohol counseling.

State officials emphasize that, for the most part, that system works. The vast majority of juveniles never again get in trouble. But the county's longtime Probation Officer Michael Schumacher (now the county's acting CEO) and his staff were concerned about those juveniles who seemed to be constantly showing up in arrest records.

What can we do about them? Schumacher wanted to know.

Nobody talked 8% in their many meetings on it. Oh no.

The term "8%" wasn't in anybody's vocabulary. What they decided to do was invest time in research. Years and years of compiling statistics. Here's what their long-term efforts came up with:

Just 8% of the hard-core juvenile offenders were responsible for more than half of all repeat juvenile crimes.

The questions became: How do we identify those 8% at an early stage? Once we do, how do we reach them?

Research showed that the 8% usually had four identifying factors: difficult lives at home; drug or alcohol abuse; poor school attendance and academic failure; or pre-delinquency trouble signs, such as gang environments or petty theft problems. Those chosen for the 8% plan had to meet three of those four categories.

The 8% kids are then sent to one of the county's five youth and family resource centers for intense attention from a battery of experts. A sixth is planned soon. Others who might qualify serve their probation through normal channels. They are the "control group" necessary to provide the county with comparative data.

For the 8% kids, their mornings begin early, with a probation worker at their front door to take them to school at the center. Before their week is out, these youths will see, besides their teachers, a psychologist, a probation officer, a medical officer, a counselor, resource center management, a home service officer, and maybe even a job consultant.

The cost for all this will run in the tens of millions in the long run. And corrections officials know some will question whether this is affordable.

But County Probation Officer John Robinson, who replaced his friend Schumacher, has a ready answer:

"Can we afford not to do this," he said.

He keeps the figures at his fingertips:

It costs $54,000 a year to keep one youth offender in Juvenile Hall. Send that same youth to a juvenile camp it's $41,000 a year. State facilities under the California Youth Authority: $34,000 annually.

But the 8% gamble: $14,000 per youth per year. And some preliminary findings show repeat offenses down, both among those in the program and its graduates.

"We know where they're headed if we don't reach them," Robinson said. "It makes more sense to us to spend the money up front, when it's less costly."

*

Even so, it's an extraordinarily difficult task.

"A great many of our young people live in motels," said Sharon Latona, director of one of the two ROPP facilities in Anaheim. "They go home, they don't have anyone to encourage them in homework; they don't even have a place they can study."

Here's a sampling of comments from staff members at Latona's center:

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