LIKE Alice in Wonderland, Brenda R. and her son, Alonso, have fallen down, down, down into a strange new world where they are constantly perplexed by what they see. ``One thing I just couldn't figure out was why they kept Alonso so long in that awful place, and then suddenly let him out,'' Brenda puzzles. ``Why couldn't he have come out on bail right away, since they obviously had decided he wasn't dangerous?''

Welcome to the world of juvenile justice.

It's a place where some of the adult notions of due-process - such as bail and the right to a jury trial - hold little sway. Instead, the state assumes the role of a kindly and understanding parent toward a wayward child, a 150-year-old concept called parens patriae upon which the juvenile-justice system is built.

Fifteen-year-old Alonso, however, is confused by the actions of his substitute ``parent.'' Charged with possession of cocaine (his first arrest), Alonso was taken to Alameda County's juvenile detention center, a dim, antiquated facility described as ``pretty bad'' even by probation officials who work there.

Alonso hadn't been convicted of any crime, but he spent most of six days locked in a small, cramped room because juveniles generally have no right to bail. Then he went to a court hearing to determine whether he needed to stay in secure confinement pending the disposition, or trial, of his case. The judge decided he did not.

Alonso says he was relieved to go home with his mother. Weeks later, at his dispositional hearing, the court ruled that the teen-ager was in possession of cocaine. But his sentence of a year's probation was not nearly as punishing as his six days in pretrial detention, Brenda says.

Except for Alameda County's aging facilities, juvenile detention there is probably no better and no worse than in most other jurisdictions in the United States. A time-honored practice in American juvenile justice, detention is used widely by law enforcement officers, judges, and court personnel - often without the due process afforded adults.

Juvenile detention usually is the province of counties and cities - and detention practices are as varied as they are. Some jurisdictions require a court hearing if a child is to be involuntarily detained longer than two or three working days. Others do not. Some youngsters are held for a few hours, while others spend months in detention. Nationwide, children in detention are held 12 days on average.

Technically, detention is not to be used to punish kids. Rather, it is to be purely custodial, while parents are located or the court determines the best ``treatment'' for a delinquent child.

Unfortunately, the practice has sometimes been misused - particularly in mixing children and adults in the same facility - with tragic results.

Most juvenile-justice experts - whether liberal or conservative - agree that kids and adults don't mix in confinement. A study for the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showed that youths held in adult jails committed suicide at a rate eight times higher than those held in juvenile detention centers.

In 1982, 15-year-old Robbie Horn killed himself within half an hour of being left alone in the juvenile section of a county jail in Kentucky. The boy had been brought to the facility by his mother, who said she couldn't control him.

Kathy Robbins spent four days of August 1984 isolated in a California county jail cell. After her court hearing, the 15-year-old was sent back to jail because there was no room at a local group home for juveniles. Later that day, she hanged herself from the bunk bed.

Deborah was 15 when she ran away from her Ohio home. As punishment, the juvenile court judge ordered her held for five days in an Ohio county jail. While there, she and two other girls in detention were sexually assaulted by a deputy jailer and two adult prisoners.

Other children detained in adult jails and police lockups have been beaten, raped, and even murdered by other inmates. Federal law strongly discourages counties and states from holding children in adult facilities under a policy called ``jail removal,'' but the law is flouted every day throughout the country.

In recognition of the problem, Congress made jail removal a cornerstone of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. States that volunteered to take part received federal funds and, in return, they agreed to work toward removing juveniles from adult facilities.

Originally, the law required only ``sight and sound separation'' of children from adult inmates. But it was amended in 1980 to mandate that children be detained in completely separate juvenile facilities.

The change was made because ``we found too many kids were being held in isolation cells,'' says James W. Brown, who has studied juvenile incarceration for the federal government's OJJDP for more than 10 years.

Isolation cells are usually the darkest, dankest, most uncomfortable rooms in a jail, and they are intended to be used for out-of-control prisoners. But they also proved to be convenient for keeping juveniles out of the sight and sound of adult prisoners.

``In a lot of places, the only easy way to do sight-and-sound separation was to tape a sign that said `Juvenile Detention' over the sign that said `Isolation Room,''' Mr. Brown says.

``So the kids were held in the tiniest, dingiest cells, with no windows and a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling.''

But this option will no longer be available to states after December, the fast-approaching deadline for removing all kids from adult jails and lockups.

Of 46 states participating in the federal act - and receiving federal funds to help accomplish the task - only five states are already in full compliance with jail removal.

Of the 41 still struggling, at least 10 won't make the deadline, predicts Brown. His organization, Community Research Associates of Champaign, Ill., is under federal contract to help states comply with the law.

Progress has been slow because locking kids up when they misbehave, skip school, or are charged with committing crimes is a time-honored practice - ``almost a Norman Rockwell piece of America,'' Brown says.

Especially in rural areas, detention has historically been local officials' ``own little mini-system of arresting and punishing kids. That way, they can keep a kid in jail 24 or 48 hours before a court hearing is held, at which time he'll be released.''

Some judges and law enforcement officers - who must answer to a public concerned about juvenile crime - are reluctant to give up this longstanding option for ``teaching kids a lesson.'' Detaining kids in separate facilities, which are often more comfortable than the county jail, is tantamount to coddling young troublemakers, they say.

The disappointing compliance figures have led some critics to charge that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is a misbegotten effort to intrude on states' rights, as well as a flagrant waste of taxpayers' dollars. Indeed, the Reagan administration has proposed eliminating the OJJDP (charged with enforcing the act) for seven consecutive years.

Former OJJDP chief Alfred S. Regnery, testifying before a congressional committee during his 1984 budget request, laid out the Reagan administration's intent: ``Those activities that have demonstrated their effectiveness can be continued and funded by state and local governments, if they so desire.''

Child-advocacy groups, however, contend that states will not change their deeply ingrained practices - even if children are being hurt - without strong leadership at the federal level. While many states are likely to be out of compliance come December, some have demonstrated their commitment to jail removal in other ways. Several states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri, and California, have passed strong legislation in recent years banning the jailing of children in adult facilities.

The actual number of children confined each year in adult jails and lockups is difficult to pinpoint. In 1974, a national survey showed that about half a million juveniles were so incarcerated. Today, depending on where you get your figures, the estimates of juveniles held in adult facilities are as high as 400,000 and as low as 50,000.

Impatient with the rate of progress under the act, youth advocates have been turning to the federal courts to enforce the jail-removal provision - and they are winning.

In two landmark cases, first in Oregon and then in Iowa, federal courts ruled that jailing juveniles with adults violated their rights. In particular, the 1987 Iowa case (Hendrickson v. Griggs) appears to have paved the way for juveniles across the US to enforce their rights under the JJDP Act in federal courts.

ROBERT hanged himself in his cell, where he had been isolated for more than 24 hours for disrupting the breakfast meal. Although workers at San Francisco's juvenile hall knew the boy was mentally unstable, he was not seen by any medical professionals on the staff. Robert banged on his locked door, asking when he would be let out, but received no response. Unsupervised, the 17-year-old fashioned a noose from his sweat shirt and took his own life. It was Valentine's Day 1986.

Five days later, two children, aged 12 and 14, were ordered to help clean Robert's cell of the resulting bodily wastes. One of the boys knew the dead youth.

The suicide and its aftermath touched off an uproar in San Francisco. Officials were ``reassigned,'' studies were ordered, and a US Justice Department investigation ensued. Amid the flurry for reform, the presiding juvenile court judge expressed hope that ``two or three years from now we'll be able to say we've assuaged his death.''

Now, 2 years later, the case has faded from public view and not much has changed at San Francisco's juvenile hall. Some child advocates see glimmers of hope in the new city administration and a new juvenile hall director, but they say the jury is still out on substantial improvements.

``I'm so discouraged,'' says Mar- garet Brodkin of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, which has labored for 10 years to reform San Francisco's detention hall. ``You see some progress and then you see it all backsliding.'' A major concern is that the momentum has gone out of the reform effort, she says.

The antiquated 30-year-old facility probably needs to be replaced, Ms. Brodkin says, but the building is not the real problem. ``It's the immuneness of the bureaucracy to the needs of kids that needs to be addressed.''

NATIONWIDE reform efforts of the past 15 years were intended to reduce the numbers of children who are locked up - either in detention or in correctional institutions. But they have not succeeded. Record numbers of children continue to be held in secure confinement, despite the following changes in juvenile justice:

Abused and neglected children are no longer permitted to be confined in jails or other prisonlike settings where delinquents are housed. An array of services such as emergency shelters, shelter homes, and foster homes has evolved to meet their needs.

Status offenders (runaways, truants, and other children whose offenses would not be crimes if committed by adults) in many states no longer may be securely detained unless they have violated a ``valid court order.'' Experts disagree over what has happened to these teen-agers. Some say the kids are out on the streets. Others contend that they are being committed to private residential treatment facilities by their parents.

Mentally and physically handicapped children no longer may be incarcerated but must be housed in less restrictive settings, such as group homes or foster homes.

Arrests of juveniles have dropped from 1,824,712 in 1977 to 1,603,497 in 1986, a 12.1 percent decrease, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

Disagreement abounds over why incarceration rates remain so high. Some experts say the public is demanding a get-tough approach because juveniles are committing more hard-core crimes.

Indeed, a new federal study shows that 39 percent of youngsters in juvenile correctional facilities nationwide are serving time for violent crimes. The study, based on a survey by the US Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 43 percent of the juveniles had been arrested more than five times.

But skeptics say children continue to be locked up at overly high rates, in part because juvenile justice is big business - and kids are the raw materials that keep hundreds of thousands of adults employed, thousands of bureaucrats busy, and hundreds of contractors happy.

``We're still too willing to surrender our kids to a class of professionals to be diagnosed, medicated, treated, or repaired,'' says Paul DeMuro, a private consultant on juvenile-justice issues. ``This creates a whole growth industry.''

Indeed, juvenile institutions in some rural areas are the largest local employers. Further, juvenile-agency administrators who have tried to close institutions say that the employees' union is often their most vocal opponent.

Whatever the reason for high rates of incarceration, about 18 percent of all public juvenile facilities for both detention and correction - housing 45 percent of all kids in custody - were overcrowded in 1985, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Crowding is emerging as a serious problem in juvenile justice, just as it is in adult corrections. When overcrowding results in violation of a juvenile's rights, as in the recent case of a 13-year-old California boy who was triple-bunked in a two-man cell and then raped by another delinquent in Contra Costa County's juvenile hall, public officials worry that they may be slapped with civil rights lawsuits.

To many local officials, the obvious solution is to expand capacity. But other experts say that more bricks and mortar is an expensive solution that will not necessarily solve the problem. Instead, officials need to develop alternatives to secure detention, such as home supervision, emergency shelters, or closely supervised foster homes, says David Steinhart of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Then they should develop objective criteria to determine which youths need to be detained to protect the public, and which do not, he says.

Of 120 kids held in Contra Costa County's juvenile hall last July, 10 were between the ages of 9 and 12. ``Some of them were clinically depressed and some tried to kill themselves,'' says county probation officer Dennis Lepak. ``We had an 11-year-old refusing to go home, and refusing to tell us why. We think a lot of the kids we deal with are abused, neglected, emotionally disturbed, and should be in the mental-health system.''

But Contra Costa County, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the US, has no psychiatric ward for children in its public hospitals, Mr. Lepak says.

``With counties being so pressed financially, we can't afford to spend $500 a day per kid to place them in a private hospital. So we keep them in juvenile hall at one-tenth the cost,'' he says. ``Juvenile probation is the safety net at the bottom. When families and cops run out of options, they bust the kids and bring them to us.''

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