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Juvenile Hall decision disrupted

By Jon Mays Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday July 25, 2001

Nine protesters chanting “Books not bars, schools not jails” were arrested Tuesday for disrupting a public hearing in front of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on whether a 450-bed Juvenile Hall should be built in Dublin.  

After a vote that essentially gave the new Juvenile Hall the green light, the nine broke through a hip-level wooden gate that separates the county staff from the audience and laid down on the floor with their arms entwined. About 30 supporters chanted in front of them – separated by the gate and 11 Sheriff deputies.  

After 20 minutes, a few of the 11 Sheriff’s deputies present pulled up the protesters – who did not resist – one by one and arrested them behind the chamber’s closed doors.  

The group was arrested for unlawful assembly, County Undersheriff Curtis Watson said. 

The arrests came at the end of an emotional four and half hour debate between those who said that the new facility is long overdue and much needed and those who say bigger jails would mean more youth incarceration.  

Supervisors voted 3-2 against a proposal by Supervisor Keith Carson to study the issue for an additional 90 days. During the study, Carson suggested that the county look at the need for additional juvenile facilities as opposed to intervention and prevention services.  

They also voted 4-1 to reduce the capacity of the new hall from 540 to 450 beds and conduct a review of the county’s juvenile justice system to identify alternatives to incarceration. 

Although the county has wanted to replace the aging 299-bed Juvenile Hall in San Leandro for ten years, Carson’s proposal suggested they try to squeeze in the additional study without losing $33 million in state grant money. The grant requires that the new facility be constructed by 2005.  

A needs assessment study using data from 1992 to 1997 was conducted by a firm that county officials admitted will also take part of the facility’s construction. County officials also included four additional years of data on the average daily population. That data indicated that a 450-bed facility would meet the county’s needs, according to a county report.  

Moving and expanding the facility would impact Berkeley residents in several ways. Without question, parents of incarcerated youth would have to travel farther for visits. Opponents of the facility also say that instead of using scarce resources for jail construction, the money would be better spent on schools or intervention programs throughout the county.  

“Youth need programs. We need recreation centers. We need affordable places to live and good schools. I don’t think the board is setting a very good example. If people need help, you don’t build a bigger box to put them in,” said Claire Tran, of Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership. 

At Berkeley High School, for instance, officials say there’s room for the county to play a bigger role in providing mental health services on campus.  

Others said that there has been sufficient study and that it would be paid for with state money specifically for this type of construction. Not building the facility, they said, would be equal to throwing the money away. 

“This is single-source money. If it’s not being used to build a juvenile facility, it’s simply going to go back,” said James Sweeney, of the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council. “They use statistics the way a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support. We’ve been studying the problem to death. S—, make a decision. We’ve been hemming and hawing.” 

Opponents of the project said the larger facility would mean more aggressive police activity towards young people. 

“450 beds is still too big for this community. Other communities this size have much smaller facilities. It’s extreme, it’s unnecessary and it’s ridiculous,” said Michael Molina, who was later one of the group arrested. “If they build it, they will fill it. No way should we give them more reason to be more aggressive than they already are.” 

However, Brenda Harbin-Forte, presiding judge of the Alameda County Juvenile Court, said the notion the rhetoric about the hall being the largest per capita facility of its kind is false.  

“Let’s stop, build a 440-bed facility and let’s spend the rest of the time looking at our services,” she said. “Let’s take a courageous step and plan for the future.” 

Van Jones, national executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, organized the public opposition to the larger facility and said the decision to move forward with the, as he put it, “the Super Jail” will not be ignored. 

“We’re disappointed. Every one of those supervisors said they would have a study,” Jones said. “This is the first sit-in of many over the over-incarceration of young people in general.”