San Bernardino program rethinks approach to juvenile justice

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

An Inland Empire-based program launched in 2008 is proving that new thinking about keeping juvenile offenders out of state and county facilities can lead to dramatic results within just a few years.

San Bernardino’s Gateway Program takes each juvenile offender, or “ward,” and tailors a specific program to match each of them. Every single one who passes through contributes to a database that allows the county to conduct quarterly reviews and change course where ncessary.

“The Gateway Program focuses on education and vocation, combined with quarterly assessment of outcomes,” said Brenda Perez, the program’s director.

The numbers speak for themselves. The program’s flexibility and constant evolution has made it incredibly efficient, slashing taxpayer costs by 20 percent compared to housing the same wards in state facilities.

Senate Bill 81, which went into effect in 2007, overhauled the juvenile justice system by shifting all non-violent juvenile offenders from the state to the local level. Prior to its passage, San Bernardino County relied heavily on committing wards to the California Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF). 

Luckily, the state didn’t just dump these wards on the counties. The Youthful Offender Block Grant, which was a provision of SB 81, gave all 58 counties in California unprecedented flexibility in finding ways to keep these kids out of detention centers.

Over a period of several months in late 2007, San Bernardino’s Department of Probation convened and consulted a group of stakeholders, including representatives from education and behavioral health agencies as well the juvenile justice system to identify specific benchmarks and determine how to measure outcomes. 

The resulting Gateway Program focuses not only on rehabilitation, but it is also aimed and preparing wards for reintegration into their community.

Through gang intervention, parenting classes, job-skill workshops, and both high school and college level courses, the eighteen month program helps youth offenders plant deep roots where they live, giving them more reasons to stay out of trouble. 

With only a handful of facilities remaining throughout the state, the DFJ is completely incapable of achieving these same goals. Of those kids remaining in state facilities, 80 percent find their way back. Those in the Gateway Program return at a rate of just 36 percent.

This program is an example of how empowering local governments to manage local problems can lead to the achievement of long-term public safety goals.  Given the fiscal incentives to flex its innovative muscle, San Bernardino developed a data-driven plan that kept kids at home and cost taxpayers less.

Perez is confident that with similar funding Gateway can be successfully adopted by other counties. With the number of stakeholders calling for full juvenile realignment, *Governor Brown, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), and the Little Hoover Commission are just a few)steadily growing while local budgets wither, it may be an option worth considering. 


Alexandra Bjerg

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