SANTA CRUZ — These are get-tough times for juvenile crime. All over the nation, youth detention centers are full to brimming. But jailers in this beach town with a liberal bent think they've found a cheaper and better way.
They're sending home all but the worst kids.
Instead of languishing in juvenile hall, budding criminals in Santa Cruz County are placed under house arrest, made to deal with their parents -- and face their victims. They're given a job, tutoring and counseling. They're kept busy, not behind bars.
So instead of getting scared straight, Nick Jackson got into cooking.
On one recent evening, the 17-year-old aspiring chef stood rapt amid glistening pots and pans, learning to whip up wok-seared salmon. Jackson, who started shoplifting at 8 and had graduated to grand-theft auto by his teens, said he has traded crime for a commercial kitchen.
"It was getting to the point in life where I didn't know what to do," he admitted, gingerly flipping a fish filet under the watchful eye of his tutor, a local executive chef. "I fell in love with this."
What skeptics label a soft-headed experiment with potentially dangerous results is called a success in Santa Cruz -- just as it had in Chicago; Portland, Ore.; and several cities before.
Instead of sliding back into crime, law-breaking teenagers sent home here have mostly avoided trouble. In the seven years since Santa Cruz County altered its approach to juvenile troublemakers, just 2% have committed new offenses while awaiting resolution of their cases.
At the same time, youth crime in the county fell 30%, the juvenile hall's daily population declined 47% and the length of stay there dropped to about a third of the state average.
With fewer youths behind bars, Santa Cruz also spends far less on juvenile incarceration. Home detention is less than half the cost of housing youths in juvenile hall.
"Forget the liberal, I-want-to-take-care-of-the-kids stuff," said Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute. "This makes fiscal good sense."
But the United States is largely heading in the opposite direction. Although juvenile crime is declining nationwide, the U.S. juvenile detention population grew 74% from 1985 to 1995. Operating costs soared 139%, bringing the average annual detention cost per child to $36,000 -- about the same as a year at Harvard University.
The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington nonprofit, contends in a national report to be released in early January that "nothing short of a lock-up boom exists in the United States."
California has become one of the country's most aggressive youth jailers, with an incarceration rate 39% higher than the national average. Despite unrelenting budget pressures, the state is on a path to add about 3,200 juvenile hall beds by 2006, boosting capacity 30%. If all the beds are filled, reformers fear, juvenile hall will gobble money intended for crime prevention programs.
"We're better off sending a lot of these youths back home," said Judge John Salazar of Santa Cruz. "Government does a lousy job of raising other people's kids."
State officials say juvenile halls, for decades stiffed at the funding trough, are playing catch-up. Construction is needed, they say, to renovate aging, crowded and unsafe detention centers.
They're skeptical about a one-size-fits-all approach. Santa Cruz County -- just over the hill from Silicon Valley -- has higher household incomes, lower poverty and fewer single-parent families than the state as a whole. Skeptics say detention reforms have a better chance in such a sunny socioeconomic climate.
Stalwarts in the juvenile justice system contend the pendulum shouldn't swing too far. Jail, they say, is the best spot for many teenage offenders.
Larry Price, president of Chief Probation Officers of California, admits to an "uncomfortable feeling" that reformers in places such as Santa Cruz, despite commendable intentions, sometimes fail to make public safety a high enough priority. Price said "they need to bring it back to a middle point."
Harsher critics say reformers want to coddle natural-born criminals. The nation's get-tough stand, they contend, has played a role in stemming youth crime, proving that we should stay the course.
But California's fiscal dilemma is nudging counties to look anew at experiments like the one underway in Santa Cruz.
"Maybe this is the golden moment for the reform movement," said Sue Burrell of San Francisco's Youth Law Center. "Arnold Schwarzenegger and anyone else in charge of public funds should be looking for effective ways to save taxpayer dollars."
High costs and crowded conditions drove Santa Cruz toward change. The county's 42-bed juvenile hall was sometimes running at 150% of capacity, sparking friction among staff members and youths.