San Francisco's Juvenile Reentry Court to Participating Youth: "We've Got Your Back"

September-October 2010

On Thursday mornings in Department 4 at San Francisco's Youth Guidance Center, Judge Kathleen Kelly presides over the Juvenile Reentry Court, a pioneering collaborative model court-the only one in the nation where the juvenile court is directly involved. The court officially began in December 2009 as the result of a Second Chance Act grant from the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to implement the Juvenile Collaborative Reentry Team (JCRT), a collaboration between the juvenile court, the juvenile probation department, the public defender's office, and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) to provide coordinated and comprehensive reentry case planning and aftercare services for youth returning to the community from out-of-home placement.

The JCRT was proposed to improve outcomes for juvenile justice-involved youth in out-of-home placement. Though San Francisco has significantly reduced the use of out-of-home placement in favor of community-based supervision and rehabilitative services for all but the most serious offenses, some youths require structure and intensive services that cannot be provided in their homes, and others cannot live at home because they are unsafe, unhealthy, or unavailable to them.

Participation in this three-year pilot program is open to youth who are represented by the public defender's office and have been referred to out-of-home placement (a group home or foster care placement) as part of a juvenile delinquency court disposition. To date, more than 40 youth have participated in the program.

The JCRT includes a probation officer, public defender, social worker, youth advocate, and community case manager. It may also include other service professionals, depending on the needs of the youth. The team has developed community partnerships with the school district, the city college, independent living skills programs, community- and school-based support programs, various employment agencies, and others.

Key members of the team are the youth and his or her family. The JCRT makes its initial contact with every participant at the time of disposition to introduce him or her to the program and formally begin the process of developing a release plan. The youth is involved in every decision about services, education, vocational opportunities and other programs that he or she will receive when released to the community. The family is also involved in team meetings throughout the case planning process and plays a key role in court hearings.

Three months before release, a youth's plan is finalized and may include housing, vocational training, education, therapy and/or drug treatment, and any other services needed to ensure a real chance for success. The entire JCRT team meets regularly outside of court to develop the detailed case plans and sign onto the plans as partners to advocate on behalf of the youth and his or her family. The JCRT jointly presents the plan to the court.

Before calling a case, Judge Kelly confers with the youth's team. They sit around a conference table and discuss the minor's progress on his or her plan, both successes and challenges. The judge queries members of the team about strategies for success and they highlight significant progress-Does he need a stay-away order from that part of town? Sounds like he is doing great in school. Should I order her to complete her job application? It seems like he needs to work more actively with his therapist about his marijuana use. Do you think she's ready to return home?

Once the case is thoroughly discussed, the youth and his or her family are called in to join the team, including Judge Kelly, at the conference table. Judge Kelly opens the discussion, praising the youth for his or her successes and raising concerns about lingering problems. She includes both the minor and his or her family in the discussion, eliciting their responses on the best way to proceed, asking questions, cautioning about negative behavior. The rest of the team actively participate in the discussion and communicate their support for the minor's success: "There are a whole lot of people here who have your back. You understand that, right?"

When the youth and his or her team have agreed on what services and orders need to be in place until the next hearing, Judge Kelly returns to her bench and makes the orders and sets a date for the next hearing.

Although the program is new, initial data has already shown a marked reduction in recidivism and in AWOLs from placement. The JCRT members are enthusiastic and delighted to be able to offer youth in the program an enhanced level of service and a better chance at success. They hope to continue the project beyond the three-year pilot period and expand the program to include more youth. For more information about the Juvenile Collaborative Reentry Court call the Youth Guidance Center, (415) 753-7800, or the San Francisco Collaborative Courts, (415) 551-3983.

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