Q: What was it about FLY that made you want to present the award to Christa Gannon?
On February 13, Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, presented a James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award to Christa Gannon, founder and director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), a program that has been reducing juvenile crime in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties by giving local youth leadership training and classes in criminal justice.
Recently, Cate spoke to Irvine Senior Program Officer Catherine Hazelton about the effectiveness of the FLY approach and how the pending realignment of most juvenile justice programs from state to county control may allow for greater emphasis on crime prevention programs.
A: Organizations like Fresh Lifelines are on the frontlines of breaking the cycle of violence and crime that leads to prison and the problems that I deal with every day. FLY does something that no one else does. They teach even the most troubled youth that they can be leaders. I think that’s a paradigm shift for them that can have a real lifelong impact on even the most troubled youth.
Q: As you think about the many pieces of the corrections system, how do you view the role of anti-recidivism, asset-building programs for youth?
A: It’s our investment in the future. If I were running a Fortune 500 company, I’d be thinking about investing in people, and investing in machinery and investing in new technologies. In the world of criminal justice, we believe in investing in the evidence-based programs that impact recidivism in the long run. That’s going to be our best ROI (Return on Investment), if you will, in the public sector.
Q: Recognizing the current fiscal constraints in California, are there ways that state leaders can support the expansion of anti-recidivism programs?
A: One thing state leaders can do is to provide visible support for the best programs. By standing with Christa and FLY, for example, we can shine a spotlight on them that can help Christa obtain private sector funds and nonprofit foundation money. We can also provide some help and expertise.
Q: What connections do you see between the current realignment process and anti-recidivism programs?
A: Basically, the governor’s view on public safety is that we should be turning over responsibility for the supervision and treatment of lower-level offenders to local government and then provide the funding for them to do the job well. That’s the premise of public safety realignment. In practice, what that means is that next year, $1 billion will go directly from the state to local governments, and then the community corrections partnerships are going to be redistributing those funds.
In my view, groups like FLY will be on the cutting edge of getting those funds from local governments. Rather than have the state sit back in Sacramento and look at grant applications, this will give the counties a chance to look community by community and make decisions at a grassroots level.
Q: What is your top priority goal in regards to the juvenile justice system?
A: Right now the most pressing priority is to determine the appropriate role of the state and the counties. The governor has recently committed to maintaining the option of state incarceration and treatment of youth. But there remains a hot debate about whether the state should continue to provide those services or whether counties can take on the entirety of the juvenile justice role in California.
It’s an interesting situation because, while we’ve been having the debate, the state’s juvenile justice system has been quietly but markedly improving. Whereas it used to cost $240,000 for a ward per year, now it costs about $170,000. And the counties are now saying that they can’t necessarily do this cheaper, nor can they necessarily do it better. And that’s changing the landscape while we’re having the discussion. That’s a good thing, but it also complicates the public policy discussion between the legislature and the counties.
Q: How do you think this should be resolved?
A: With my heart, I hope the Juvenile Justice Division remains open, because I think our employees have done such a great job in turning this place around. I would really hate to see that go away at this point. And you can say that publically. The Governor agrees with me.
Q: What do you think has been the key to the turnaround of the Juvenile Justice Division?
A: Part of it is that we’ve greatly reduced the population. In the 1990s, we were at 10,000 juvenile wards at the state level, and we’re now down to 1,100. California now has the fewest wards in state custody per capita than any state in the nation.
We only deal with wards that have the highest risks and needs. Today, 95 percent of the wards in state facilities have a violent history. More than 30 percent are mentally ill. They’re a very high-risk population as far as public safety goes. So if we’re going to spend precious state resources on these youth and if we’re going to remove them from their home counties, it only should be those wards that need that kind of investment. Otherwise I think the state is better off and wards are better off if they stay close to home.
Q: What other issues do you see on the horizon for the California juvenile justice system?
A: We are entering an era of collaboration between counties and state government that we’ve never seen before. The fact that the secretary of corrections—myself—and the president of probation chiefs, for example, are meeting to discuss a continuum of care between county and state government is an important thing to continue and expand.
The other interesting thing is that the leadership’s understanding of evidence-based programs and the value of recidivism-reduction is maturing at the right time. As I walk around the Capitol, I don’t care if I’m meeting with senators or assemblymembers from the right or the left—everyone understands that evidence-based programs can make a difference in future criminality. Even ten years ago, when I first started working as Inspector General, I used to hear all the time that nothing works. I don’t hear that any more. And I think that’s a good sign for the future of California.
Q: What other signs of hope do you see locally?
A: Many individual communities already have their own programs. Today, for example, I’m going to visit an all-volunteer program at San Quentin prison, where young adults who are already incarcerated are taking live college classes from visiting professors from Stanford and Berkeley. I attended a class recently as a visitor where there was a visiting microbiology professor from Princeton, teaching young inmates college classes from within the walls of San Quentin. It’s very cool.
FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth) represents the front side, with kids who are just on the edge of taking the wrong path. San Quentin of course is the very end of the criminal justice continuum, and yet there is still hope there. The front end is much less expensive, however, and not as disruptive on families, when you catch young people who still have their lives in front of them.
Q: FLY focuses on youth who may not be as high risk as those in the state Division of Juvenile Justice, but who are on probation or have spent six to nine months in detention. What is the best approach for this population?
A: FLY really has it right. It needs to be a local intervention. Family support, continuity in school, involving more of a wide range of community resources is important, but then secondly you’ve got to take a very intense role, and FLY does that. They challenge them to break out of the stereotype of what the world might expect from these young people and take on the mantle of leadership. FLY teaches them the legal system and things that break their own paradigms of who they are and what they can do. That can be a real difference-maker. And that’s what sets FLY apart.