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(Page 4 of 4)

America's juvenile-justice system, at least in theory, is a system born of hope. Hope that juvenile delinquents, because of their youthfulness and tractability, can be guided away from a life of crime. Hope that innocence can be restored if children are protected from poverty, discrimination, and neglect. Hope that crime will dwindle if, by intervention, we can cut short the criminal careers of young people.

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But these hopes have been almost dashed by the failures of the system, leading some experts to conclude that rehabilitation cannot be effective in large institutions.

``The history of the juvenile-corrections system has been one of abuse and scandal, followed by a cycle of reform and correction, then another of abuse and scandal,'' says Krisberg. A ``big chunk of the research from the past 20 years'' offers convincing evidence that ``if you take kids out of training schools and put them in intensively supervised community-based services, they do as well as or better than kids in training schools. It's more humane, and it costs about the same.''

Others, however, say the verdict is still out on many alternative-sentencing programs. ``Arguments made for community-based programs are largely experimental, although we're seeing some hopeful signs,'' says Peter Greenwood, a juvenile-justice researcher at the RAND Corporation.

But the evidence against locking up more kids in large institutions is overwhelmingly damning, he says. ``If you think rehabilitation doesn't work, you should look at incapacitation. It doesn't exactly hold together, either.''

Officially, 45 percent of former California Youth Authority wards end up back in the juvenile corrections system. But many experts, both outside and inside the agency, say the figure is actually much higher - closer to 80 percent.

An NCCD study stated that 85 percent of former CYA wards are rearrested within three years.

CYA staff, applauded as the most professional youth corrections people in the US, say they do have a positive impact on wards in their care. Indeed, interviews with 21 wards at four institutions reveal that most respond to ``special programs'' within the CYA.

In the special substance-abuse unit at a training school in Paso Robles, a young tough nervously paces in front of 70 wards holding their weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Finally, red-faced and defiant, he blurts out that he ``did drugs'' a few months earlier. Then he doubles over, his body convulsed with sobs.

The boy's confession, considered a huge stride toward overcoming the addict's propensity to deny the addiction, triggers an in-tense, three-hour group therapy session the next day. In a poignant moment, black, brown, and white youths - clasping hands they would not have deigned to touch a few months earlier - lower their heads and, in unison, recite the Lord's Prayer.

Mondel Pettaway, locked up at 15 for participating in a gang rape, says he has been helped most by a special program on ``victim awareness.''

``I've met with victims of rape and of other crimes, and it really got me to deal with my attitude and my behavior,'' he says. Now 19, he says the program at the CYA's O.H. Close School in Stockton ``has helped to make me a different person from when I walked in here.''

Mike Streng, a 20-year-old ward at the Preston School of Industry outside Sacramento, lives in a unit designated for counseling. ``There's a lot of stuff I need to deal with for myself, mostly my anger, especially toward my family,'' he says. ``Staff here really try to help as much as possible.''

Invariably, however, wards fortunate enough to be in these few programs express their relief at leaving the ``line'' units, where the bulk of the CYA population lives.

``On the main-line lodges, you've got to put on a front and deal with the gangs,'' says Mike, who joined a gang ``for acceptance and protection.

``If you say you're with them, they'll try to test you or get you to fight someone,'' he says. ``I got to like it.

``You feel powerful and you have position. On this unit, I'm not a gang member. But if I were to leave this unit and go back up there,'' he says with a jerk of his thumb out the window, ``I'd be one again.''