Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Erin Espinosa CroppedLast week I stood in my swivel-based office chair attempting to hang a picture. It had been bothering me all week and surely using this approach would be successful and quick.

Just as I stretched as far as I could and began to loop the latch on the back of the frame to the nail, the chair I was standing on shot out from under me. Sprawled in the middle of my office with every part of my body in pain, I began to contemplate my ability for complex decision-making.

Here I am, with a couple advanced degrees, and I virtually knocked myself out hanging a picture. Surely I know better, so I should have chosen a ladder or at least a stable chair. Either one would have increased my level of success and decreased my level of pain.

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With that image in mind, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of balancing care and control in the juvenile justice system. Often the tool of choice in juvenile justice is the hammer — a tool that is driven with power and accountability, monitoring compliance and wielding authority.

Although the hammer is useful for its intended purpose, it doesn’t work very well in circumstances where other tools are a better fit. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, a hammer wouldn’t tighten a screw.

For juvenile justice, the system often overpromises the versatility of the hammer, ignoring the other tools in the box needed to build bridges for youth, families and communities. In doing so our probation officers are often underequipped to prevent youth from becoming funneled deeper into the system, especially youth with untreated or undiagnosed mental health needs.

Most estimates of prevalence range from 50 to 75 percent, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of youths having a serious emotional disorder. When compared to the estimates among the general population, 9 to 20 percent of youth indicating a mental health need, it is obvious youth with mental health challenges are disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system.

In fact, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives found two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities across the country reported holding youth in detention not because of the seriousness of their offenses but because they were awaiting mental health care.

These youth enter a justice system that is ill-equipped to respond to and support the complex and multisystemic issues facing them. Youth with mental health challenges present symptoms of their problems in multiple settings, including the school, community and home.

Subsequently, they pose a challenge to the traditional model of supervision. It’s no surprise that officers who supervise justice-involved youth with mental health challenges identify the most daunting issue regarding successful supervision as accessing and coordinating social services.

[Related: The Importance of Treating for Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth]

When unsuccessful under supervision, youth will often be charged with a violation of probation and placed in out-of-home settings. This is especially true for youth who are court-ordered to treatment or other services and supports.

Recidivism studies indicate the rates of rearrest for juvenile offenders who have returned from residential treatment and/or juvenile correctional settings range from 40 percent and 65 percent to as high as 85 percent. These findings suggest that when justice-involved youth return to the community from placement, including placements with mental health treatment, there is a very high likelihood that they will cycle back through the system or become engaged in the adult criminal justice system.

Fortunately, states across the country are beginning to look at effective alternatives and diversion models from the juvenile justice system for youth with mental health needs. In Texas, diversion from the system took shape as the Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI), a preadjudicatory model that focuses on the use of specialized juvenile probation officers (SJPOs) — essentially probation officers who also take on the role of a case manager.

With specialized supervision, exclusive caseloads facilitate the linking of youth with mental health needs to appropriate services, improve their level of functioning and reduce the number of noncompliance revocations of probation. These officers are extensively trained in adolescent mental health, crisis intervention and family involvement, and serve as a broker between youth and community resources and supports. While working toward supervision goals, specialized supervision also works on treatment goals.

Preliminary data suggest that by rethinking the model of traditional probation, youth were significantly less likely to be adjudicated and more likely to receive needed mental health supports. Youth who had specialized supervision were also more likely to access community services such as individual therapy, family counseling and other community resources than those under traditional supervision. However, despite the data, many states, including Texas, do not implement statewide policies that encourage the adoption of this more successful approach.

When we look at the data, it is clear that the specialized supervision model is promising. In any given year more than 1 million juveniles are arrested across the country. Probation departments initially see most of those youth, and more than half of their cases receive court-ordered supervision.

If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. Given the disproportionately high number of juveniles who enter the system with an unmet mental health need, states and local jurisdictions must change the tools they make available to supervising juvenile probation officers.

Rethinking probation will require more than just buy-in from any one department or county. Rather, systemic change through state-level policies has more potential to effectively replace the hammer of traditional probation with specialized supervision, linking youth to effective services and supports to reduce recidivism and promote better long-term outcomes.

Erin Espinosa, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Reach her at

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Traumatized, Locked Up, LA Girls Starting to Get More Help


LOS ANGELES — Moriah, then 14, woke up to burns on her body one night along with physical evidence that she had been raped. She had been invited to a party the night before by someone she considered a friend.

She eventually came to realize that she had almost been looped into a human trafficking scheme. This event, among many other traumatic events, affected Moriah mentally, physically and emotionally.

“I jJJIE Los Angeles Bureauust felt neglected,”Moriah said of her childhood.
When she was growing up her father was in and out of prison, and she turned to other kids in her neighborhood for comfort. She says she felt like she had no protection and felt lost. While she was never officially in a gang, she did hang around friends who were gang members when growing up in Fullerton, California. Many of those neighborhood friends had problems of their own.

With them Moriah started using drugs and soon struggled with addiction, she said. In high school she got hooked on methamphetamines. On one occasion, when she and her friend were trying to come up with money for drugs, they decided to steal a car.

Two days later, she was arrested for grand theft auto and spent eight months in a juvenile corrections facility. After getting out,Moriah was determined to turn her life around, but soon she started using again. She became friends with gang members and started stealing cars again for drug money. When she was 17, she was sentenced to Los Padrinos and then Camp Scott.

Girls like Moriah who experience high degrees of trauma are statistically more likely to act out than kids with fewer childhood traumas. As a result, they are also far more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to a growing body of research.

When girls come in contact with the justice system, however, new reports show it is usually for acts that present little or no threat to public safety, and for behavior that’s largely a reaction to “abuse, violence and deprivation.”

Yet, while girls are disproportionately pulled into the system, new juvenile justice reforms rarely focus on the specific needs of troubled girls or on the underlying reasons they landed in the justice system in the first place.

For example, when Moriah recalls her experience at Camp Scott, what stands out to her the most from the group counseling sessions she was encouraged to attend was how many girls in the camp revealed they had been sexually abused, or were in camp for being sexually trafficked, or both.

“I thought it was really crazy,” she said. The sex-trafficked teenagers “were basically brainwashed by people who these girls thought were their boyfriends.”

Issue of trauma in juvenile justice system

The number of girls in the U.S. juvenile justice system has been rising steadily in the last decade. Trauma is now increasingly being recognized as a driving factor for pushing girls into the system.

According to a study by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), youth in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to significantly higher rates of traumatic childhood events than youth with no contact with the justice system, with rates of trauma exposure ranging from 70 to 96 percent.

The NCTSN study also shows that girls in the justice system have experienced even higher rates of victimization than their male peers.

Nationally, more than one-third of girls in the system have a history of sexual abuse, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Similarly, a 2014 study of 64,329 kids involved in the justice system in Florida found that 31 percent of the girls surveyed reported having been sexually abused, 41 percent reported physical abuse and 84 percent reported family violence as opposed to 7 percent, 26 percent, and 81 percent for boys in those same categories.

There are no definitive statistics showing the degree to which girls in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles have experienced high degrees of trauma.

But a unique program called the Girls Health Screen, which has been running as a pilot program in one of LA’s juvenile probation camps for girls, reports that one-third of the girls tested report such “urgent health needs” as a recent history of sexual assault, a chronic sense of hopelessness and recent suicidal thoughts and actions.

hub_arrow_2-01The Los Angeles County Probation system as a whole has made some effort to include trauma-informed programs in its juvenile camps — both the boys’ camps, and the two facilities catering solely to girls. Probation officials hope that a brand-new boys camp facility due to open next year, Camp Kilpatrick, will provide a model of therapeutic and rehabilitative programing.

However, a prominent report released last year by the National Women’s Law Center suggests that, both nationally and locally, the mental and emotional health concerns specific to females are largely ignored by juvenile justice systems — including LA’s system. And girls suffer as a consequence.

Still, the LA-based Girls Health Screen is one promising new program that many local advocates hope will make a difference in outcomes for the county’s justice-involved girls.

The value of screening

The Girls Health Screen (GHS) is a gender-responsive medical health screen that assesses the physical and emotional health needs of girls entering juvenile justice facilities. It was developed by the Girls Health and Justice Institute and its founder Leslie Acoca.

The GHS, given on a laptop, requires girls in camp to respond to 117 questions that cover multiple areas of their lives. According to Acoca, the GHS is designed to be non-intimidating. The questions are worded simply, and require only Yes/No answers. Even the look of the test, which includes inviting graphics, is designed to prevent an institutional appearance. Because of the test’s design and the way it is administered, said Acoca, girls feel able to share their experiences privately, without feeling that they are being judged. Even the act of simply taking the GHS has its own therapeutic effect, she said.

Since 2012, Acoca said, approximately 400 girls at Camp Scudder, the second of LA County Probation’s two camps for girls, have been given the health screen. But the GHS has yet to move beyond the pilot stage in LA, due to bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of funding, she said. All that is due to change this year thanks to a much-needed $20,000 cash infusion that LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has managed to shake free from the county’s probation department.

[Related: When We Fail To Ask Why: Sexually Abused Girls Funneled into Juvenile Justice System]

“We are hoping the $20,000 will allow the program to roll out in all the juvenile halls in LA,” said Kuehl, who is one of the program’s strong supporters. The idea, she said, is that the information will connect girls to programs and health services they need while in camp or in juvenile hall, and that the information, while private, will also follow those same girls as they return to their communities, so that they can also be connected to needed programs when they come out of lock-up.

“The ETA for the Girls Health Screen to be ready to screen every incarcerated girl in LA is June/July of 2016,” Acoca said.

Girls and Gangs: Camp to community

When Moriah was at Camp Scott, she said there were a number of programs that helped her work through her emotional issues, including writing workshops and counseling groups. One of the programs she said influenced her the most was run by an organization called Girls and Gangs.

“I just loved the support,” Moriah said. “The impression [the Girls and Gangs staff] gave me was that they genuinely cared.”

Girls and Gangs provides rehabilitation and transition services for girls who become involved in the juvenile justice system. Their model, which operates under the nonprofit umbrella of the Youth Policy Institute, focuses on pairing girls with mentors starting from their stay at the probation camps all the way through re-entry into their community. According to the Girls and Gang staff, matching each girl with a caring adult makes the program effective and positive for young women transitioning from camp to home.

Moriah was paired with mentor Vanessa Gutierrez while she was still in camp. Then, after Moriah left Camp Scott, she explained, Gutierrez helped her with getting clothes and generally provided support.

“I just got so much support from her and she did so much for me. I didn’t really know why,” Moriah said.

According to Ana Aguirre, program director of Youth Policy Institute’s YouthSource & Education Department, Girls and Gangs works because it encourages girls to share their painful experiences in a safe place where they don’t feel judged.

“They want to be heard. They want to express how they feel,” Aguirre said. “They’re carrying a lot of weight,” yet they often don’t understand the emotional weight they carry. “They might not understand that it’s trauma” they are dealing with, “but we’re able to identify that this was a traumatic experience that has shaped who [they] are.”

The next step in helping the girls heal, Aguirre said, is to ask them, “How can we use this to make you grow and make you stronger?”

Belinda Walker, who serves on the board for Girls and Gangs, said boys in the juvenile justice system have a high degree of trauma too.

Yet, in her observations about the nature of girls’ trauma, Walker echoed what Moriah and Acoca had described. “If you were to drop into any girls’ probation camp,” she said, “you would find that 70 to 90 percent of those girls have been sexually abused in their early adolescent years by trusted adults. In the conversations I have had with probation officers, they’ve said that every girl [they work with] has experienced some form of trauma or abuse. It can be emotional, physical or sexual.”

The broader view

Discussions surrounding trauma and trauma-informed practices are relatively recent, according to Dr. Marleen Wong, the associate dean for field education at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and a nationally known expert in the field of psychological trauma and recovery.

All service sectors have begun looking at this issue of trauma and how to factor it into their services, she said.

“You can look at the national scene and see the Department of Labor talking about traumatized environments. How do you create a trauma-informed workplace? U.S. Department of Education is talking about trauma-informed schools,” Wong said. “Health and Human Services is talking about trauma-informed services. This is how our research is coming into its own, forming the foundation and the basis for thinking about ways to change the way we provide health and human services.”

A landmark legal settlement for which Wong served as the subject matter expert is helping to precipitate one of the most significant changes to how schools treat trauma.

In May 2014, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Compton Unified School District by Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The suit was filed on behalf of five students and three teachers, charging that the school system had not properly educated students who have experienced repeated trauma and violence. Their argument was based on research showing that exposure to trauma and repeated violence harm a child’s abilities to learn and function in school properly.

“All of the studies show that the kids with PTSD can’t concentrate because they have flashbacks, they think constantly about their safety, they never feel safe, they’re always anxious,” Wong said. “It’s generalized anxiety, even when they’re not in a dangerous situation.”

In October 2015, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled that students who experience traumatic events while growing up in poor, turbulent neighborhoods could be considered disabled. (However, this does not mean any exposure to trauma can guarantee a child will have a disability and be afforded the protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

The settlement sought mandatory trauma-informed training for teachers, adequate mental health and counseling services, and classes teaching students how to cope with anxiety and their emotions.

According to Wong, looking at how trauma affects children is a way to address why some schools may have huge dropout rates and how those rates factor into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s time for us to step up in the right way,” Wong said.

Next steps

On Nov. 3, 2015, the National Crittenton Foundation published a toolkit to help identify children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Crittenton’s mission is to help girls and young women affected by violence and adversity become stronger, healthier and more engaged. The foundation has published a series of studies and reports relating to girls and trauma (the most recent in September 2015).

They find that girls and young women in the justice system have disproportionately high ACE scores, but are often marginalized and overlooked by that same system. The consensus is that young girls should not be given the same treatment as boys if they are to successfully heal from emotionally toxic experiences of their childhood and adolescence, according to Crittenton.

As for the Girls Health Screen, once Leslie Acoca gets the GHS to all the girls entering LA County’s juvenile facilities, she intends to take it nationwide.

Supervisor Kuehl said she is very aware that LA’s juvenile facilities are not doing all that is needed for girls.

“One of the interesting things I heard from women who I’ve spoken to who’d been released from prison, who had also been in juvenile camps, and then had offended again as adults,” Kuehl said, “there were much better programs in prison for women than they ever had in camps, so they felt like they had a better chance to turn their lives around in prison. That really told me that we’re not seeing a lot of what is possible to really help our girls.”

Accoca went still further. “It’s impossible to do trauma care if you don’t know what trauma a girl has experienced,” she said. “With the level of injury we see with incarcerated girls, both emotional and physical, it is immoral to do anything less than identify those injuries so we can address them.”

Nevertheless, for Moriah, getting some of the proper care and guidance she needed through Girls and Gangs and her own mentor has helped her move forward. She is currently working full time and has plans to go back to school. She is also an ambassador to the Road to Success Academy at Camp Scott.

“A lot of girls got the same extended hand, but I grabbed it,” Moriah said. “You could have all the same things but if you’re not ready, it’s not going to happen.”

Moriah has come to realize that admitting the effects of trauma is not easy. Now that she has taken her own concrete steps into a better future, Moriah’s advice to girls is this: “Never quit on yourself. Your past does not define you.”

This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.

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If They Had Asked: Young People in Recovery Reflect on What Could Have Been

Three young men in recovery reflect on their youth and how their addictions were mishandled by their mentors, teachers and coaches. They spoke at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation's Youth Substance Use Prevention and Early Intervention Strategic Initiative Annual Convening in Washington, D.C. in late 2015.

Addicted to the Street Life

I was born on April 5, 1977 in Harbor City, California. I am 35 and I have been incarcerated since the age of 16. I was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder and two attempted murders.

Here is my story with no glory. I grew up a light-skinned, biracial only child in Inglewood and Hawthorne, California. My mother is white and 32 years older than me, so it was hard for her to relate to the street life. I never met my black father because he raped my mother, which gave me life.

The turning point for me was age 12. My mother got a good job and we were off welfare. I became a latchkey kid. I had no babysitter or supervision from 2:30 to 11:30 at night.

I was spoiled, selfish, and I thought I was grown. I began to feel lonely, angry, abandoned and emotionally deprived. I stuffed all my feelings and let them build up, because I did not know how to express what I was feeling. I did not love myself or respect myself, so I did not love or respect others.

My mother drank a lot of Olde English and she sometimes looked at me with despise and hate in her eyes. I began to run the streets to get love and attention from my peers.

I lacked an identity and I wanted to fit in. So, I started drinking alcohol and smoking weed, ditching school, breaking the law, being a class clown at school and hanging around negative influences. I was a follower and easily influenced.

At age 13, I started to feel peer pressure to choose a crowd to run with. I played both sides of the fence. I had the positive crowd, who played sports, did well in school and liked outdoor activities. I also had the negative crowd, who were gang members, drug dealers, drug and alcohol users, and older than me.

I was addicted to the street life. The more bad choices I made, the more I craved. I was arrested for shoplifting at 14, and at 15 I became a gang member. I stood by on drive-bys and saw people lose their lives, I robbed people and sold drugs to people I knew, did snatch and grab beer runs, got into fights at school, got suspended from middle school, high school, continuation school and probation school for ditching and acting a fool.

I even missed my eighth-grade graduation because I got suspended so many times. I thought it was cool to act a fool, but inside I felt like a fool because I could not go to graduation.

I began spinning out of control to feed my need for attention. I numbed my pain with harder party drugs like acid, cocaine, speed, and primos — a mix of weed and crack. I followed the crowd to be accepted and did not care about the consequences.

I did many crimes I did not get caught for, but it was the little ones in my mind that cost me. At age 16 my vandalism arrest and my prior shoplifting arrest, plus my mother telling the court I was uncontrollable, landed me in Central Juvenile Hall, Sylmar, Camp Challenger and Camp Scott for about four months.

[Related: California Gov. Jerry Brown Backs No More Automatic Adult Charges for Teens in New Initiative]

I was angry at my moms and I feared the unexpected. I adjusted quickly [to camp]. My beliefs and values were so twisted I thought camp was cool.

When I got out [of camp] my anger was worse. I thought I was invincible. My lifestyle addiction was off the hook. I disrespected my moms, my neighbors, my teachers at continuation school and probation school. I escaped near-death situations, and five months after camp I got high, went looking to someone to jack and ended up shooting people at a party.

On Christmas Eve of 1993, I was in solitary confinement in LP [Los Padrinos] sober, crying like a baby and stressed out. Thinking: I am sorry can I go home now?

Growing up from a boy to a man, from juvenile hall to prison for this crime has been a tough rollercoaster ride. It taught me many lessons filled with shame and regret.

I wish I could do it all over again. My mother loved me, sacrificed for me and worked hard to provide for me. I did not appreciate or understand the struggles she faced.

In 2004, I got a letter saying a stranger raped my mother and she became pregnant [with me]. She thought about an abortion or giving me away, but she decided to keep me. That’s why when I was younger she looked at me with hate and anger in her eyes. Her family was racist so she separated herself from them to raise me.

Guess what? My mother has been there for me standing tall through it all. So-called homies, friends and girlfriends are out of sight and out of mind, living their life. My childhood friend, a friend I would die for, snitched on me on this case and he gave me the gun.

My mother told me years ago he is no good. I was too hard-headed to listen … Those who love you will encourage you to do the right thing, not the wrong thing!

I learned crime traumatizes people for many years. When you hurt people it causes a ripple effect of pain. I deeply regret hurting people because I know they will never be the same. I wish I would have made better choices and expressed my feelings before it went all bad.

I am tired of prison life, showering with three other men, police telling you what to do, cats snitching like it is the thing to do, backbiting and hating spreading like the flu. Living in a bathroom-size cell with another man, locked down with showers every three days, three rolls of toilet paper for a week, two toilet flushes in five minutes and one flush every 2½ minutes or your toilet locks up for a whole hour. When getting mail it is two to three to four weeks late, nasty food, sometimes hours with no power, no water, or no toilet flushing while they do maintenance work, moving out of your cell or job to another one, because they can.

Being forced to work or go to school. Seeing guys get sick and die because of bad medical care. Sitting in a dog cage for four to seven hours waiting to see a doctor for five minutes, who doesn’t care about you because you’re in blue!!!!

Prison is not a joke on any level, so please think about your choices before you act and don’t end your life before you begin your life like I did …

Mathew is serving 15 years to life for second-degree murder and two attempted murders at San Quentin State Prison.

This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

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Fewer Teens Drink, Smoke Cigarettes, Pot Use Stagnant, More Suffer Depression: Report


WASHINGTON — The latest treasure trove of data for public health researchers and policymakers who study substance use and mental health arrived this week, with findings that suggest behavioral health among U.S. teenagers is improving by some measures.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration highlighted findings in the 2015 Behavioral Health Barometer that show decreases from 2013 to 2014 in the percentage of adolescents who reported they had engaged in binge drinking or smoked cigarettes in the previous month. The findings are a continuation of a downward trend since 2010.

During that same period, rates of marijuana use ticked up from 7.1 percent to 7.4 percent, but the change was not statistically different compared with any year from 2008 to 2013, the report said.

The data also showed an increase in the rates of depression among teenagers, the report said.


The report does not offer theories about the data or make policy recommendations. Rather, it’s designed to be a jumping-off point for researchers, public health providers and policymakers.

“The Barometer provides everyone with a better understanding of the nation's behavioral healthcare landscape and the particular needs of many communities,” said Kana Enomoto, acting administrator at SAMHSA, in a news release.

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In some cases, the changes in behavior among teens have gone largely unchanged, a trend that is worth examining more closely, said Laura Segal, a spokeswoman for the Trust for America’s Health.

“There’s clearly still stagnant levels of substance misuse among teens, and it shows that we just haven’t been having the effect that we would hope in reducing rates. We need to still think about how we orient our approach,” she said.

The Trust, a Washington-based public health research and policy nonprofit, has said communities should put more emphasis on preventing use before it starts by encouraging healthy behaviors, not only telling kids to “just say no.”

The report highlights key data about behavioral health at the national and state level, including information about how the data breaks down in demographic categories such as gender, age, income level, health insurance status and race and ethnicity.

It also looked at how adolescents perceive the risks of using certain substances. About a third of those surveyed perceive “no great risk” in smoking one or more packs of cigarettes each day or having four or five drinks nearly every day.

The numbers were higher for the percentage of teens who perceive no great risk in smoking marijuana and have grown since 2010, while most other measures have remained fairly flat.

The report found 62.6 percent of adolescents see no great risk in smoking marijuana once or twice per week, up from 52.8 percent in 2010, and 77.1 percent perceive no great risk in smoking marijuana once a month, up from 70.4 percent in 2010

Segal said the increased acceptance of marijuana use among adolescents may reflect the growing cultural acceptance of its use.

The report also said that in 2014, 11.4 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode, or about an estimated 2.8 million adolescents. Among males, the rate has grown from 4.4 percent in 2010 to 5.7 percent in 2014, while among females it has grown from 11.9 percent to 17.3 percent during the same period.

“That’s an enormous jump and really troubling,” Segal said.

The finding points to the need for better systems to support teenagers’ mental health, as well as improved treatment options, she said.

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Justin Luke Riley's candid approach to recovery from opioid and other addictions: "I should have a mission every day to make sure that opportunity is provided fairly, equitably to every person who needs it in this country." Riley, 28, is president and CEO of Young People in Recovery, which works to create recovery-ready communities through volunteer chapters and programs in more than 30 states nationwide.

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Convicted on Drug Charges, Georgia Youth Faces Life After Rehab

Corey Roberts

NEWNAN, Georgia — It was the fake $100 bill that finally landed Corey Roberts in prison.

He’d already had one close call, getting picked up for marijuana possession at the end of his freshman year in college.

hub_arrow_2-01By the middle of his sophomore year, he and some friends were selling pot too. Then one of their buddies passed a rival dealer the bogus Benjamin.

That led to a beatdown that drew the attention of campus police and an 18-month stretch behind bars, including nine months in a prison drug treatment program where controlled substances were almost as common as they were outside.

Released from lockup just after his 21st birthday, he now finds himself living back with his family outside Atlanta, working in a restaurant, saddled with student loans in default, fees and fines to pay as part of his probation and a life of legally constrained horizons.

But it beats prison.


Roberts is one of millions of Americans who have served prison sentences as part of the decades-old American war on drugs. The number of inmates in the federal system alone ballooned eightfold after 1980, with drug convictions accounting for about half the 200,000-plus now behind bars, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates told a Senate committee in October. About 210,000 more are serving drug sentences at the state level, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project.

That swollen system has spurred bipartisan efforts to back away from the harsh sentencing practices imposed at the peak of the drug war. Federal prisons are in the process of releasing about 6,000 inmates who qualified for reduced terms under new guidelines from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

And as more of those inmates start coming home, they’re going to be facing many of the same challenges as Roberts, who caught some breaks others haven’t.

He got into a much-sought-after prison rehab program. He had family who looked out for him while he was inside. And he knows how lucky he’s been.


“I think while I was incarcerated, I definitely had a lot of anger toward the system,” he said. But, he adds, “I wasn’t innocent in what I did. I did a lot of wrong. It was in a lot of ways an eye-opener, because it could have been worse ... I could have gotten a lot more time than what I did.”

Roberts was a normal, active, gregarious kid — at least until 14, when he collided with another player during a soccer game. Their skulls smashed together as each jumped for a header, leaving him with a concussion. Afterward, he did “a complete emotional and physical 180,” said his mother, Doneen Mills.

“His personality changed” on that day,” Mills said. “He started getting migraines, and there was about a two-month period where he missed school. He didn’t get out of bed. He didn’t communicate with us.”

Roberts was diagnosed with depression. He was given antidepressants for moodiness and hydrocodone pills to break the migraines. He was careful with the hydrocodone, knowing the risks of addiction. But around the same time, he started smoking marijuana as well.

Throughout high school, he got high about twice a month. When he went on to college at Georgia Southern University, pot use became “pretty much an everyday thing.”

At the end of his freshman year, he and a friend were driving back to the Atlanta area from college when they pulled off for food ... and ran straight into a police roadblock in Monroe County.

“We had been smoking in the car, and when I stopped, the officer smelled it and pulled us out of the car,” he said. Police found weed on both his friend and in a jar in his trunk “that I didn’t even know about.” He was charged with possession of marijuana and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor count, receiving probation and a $780 fine.

Back in school, though, he and some of his buddies had begun financing their own habits by dealing, making the six-hour round trip to Atlanta twice a week to secure their stash. Then one of their friends slipped another dealer a counterfeit bill. The angry dealer started texting Roberts, demanding he give up the friend’s address, and Roberts told his friends about it one afternoon.

“We had been drinking a little bit, smoking, the usual stuff,” he said. And in that haze, they decided “to beat him to the punch, so to speak.”

“I should have known better,” he added. “I was against it for a little while, but was eventually talked into it. I didn’t want to feel like I was a bad friend, which sounds kind of dumb now.”

The dealer lived in the same apartment complex where they were hanging out. He knew Roberts and another of his friends, so they covered their faces and hung back from the door while the others knocked. They stormed inside as soon as the guy’s roommate opened the door and went to their target’s bedroom. One of them started beating the dealer. The rest quickly decided things had gone too far and pulled him off. As they walked out, their leader grabbed a watch and some money.

“I didn’t know about this until after we were out of the apartment, and at that point I really didn’t think too much of it,” Roberts said. But soon, campus police were calling him in for questioning.

“They told me I wasn’t going to be arrested, of course,” he said. But they showed him images from security cameras that showed him and his friends leaving the apartment, and ended up charging him with battery, burglary and robbery. While he was awaiting bond, they told him they were working on a separate charge of selling weed — one of his buyers had been wearing a wire. Oh, and he had the counterfeit $100 in his wallet, leading to a second-degree forgery count as well.

He was looking at 15 years in prison. His lawyer started cutting a deal.

Life behind bars

Roberts eventually pleaded guilty to burglary, forgery and selling marijuana. He was sentenced to a total of 15 months in prison — six in a medium-security detention center, then a nine-month prison rehab program — followed by probation.

But then there was a snag. When it was time for him to go to Georgia’s Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program, there were no beds available.

That meant it was back to jail in Bulloch County, where his case originated, until a bed came open. While he waited, he read — mostly legal thrillers by authors like John Grisham and James Patterson, which he said were surprisingly popular in jail.

“It’s a little strange,” Roberts said. “But not as strange as the fact that when the TV is on, a lot of times they like to watch ‘Cops’ and stuff like that, which I never quite understood. They’re always saying, ‘I would’ve done this differently.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Obviously, you know what you’re doing — you’re sitting right here next to me.’”

It would be three months before Roberts got into the RSAT program at Coastal State Prison, near Savannah. It took the intercession of an Atlanta area lawyer and family friend to get him that spot. The lawyer, Dean Phillips, said that’s a common problem.

“RSAT is basically flooded with applicants, and you have to convince them that your client is the person who should go next, and it’s all up to RSAT,” Phillips said. He said he “very, very politely badgered them” until he was put in touch with someone who could decide whether Roberts got a bed.

Phillips explained Roberts’ plight — that he had been sitting in Bulloch County for three months, that he was a good kid who had a substance abuse issue, “but he comes from a good family and they’re trying to get him cleaned up and straightened out.”

“It’s not a paperwork thing. It really is all about relationships,” Phillips said. “You can’t do anything with paperwork, because RSAT in their sole discretion chooses when people will enter the program. And I just happened to find a contact and was able to convey his story.”

The next day, Roberts got a slot in the program. He was among the last of the RSAT-bound inmates in Bulloch County to get a slot in the program. Some had been waiting far longer than he had.

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And because RSAT is a nine-month program and was part of Roberts’ sentence, there was no way for him to get credit for the extra time served: It will be taken off the end of his probation term instead.

Gwendolyn Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, told Youth Today that the typical wait time for a male inmate to get a bed in an inmate RSAT program is a month. For women, the wait times are longer — about six months. The state only runs the program at one women’s prison, Hogan said.

Coastal State was a far cry from the detention center, where Roberts was allowed to go out on work details. The inmates at Coastal stayed inside the fences.

“It was a shock, walking in and seeing all the razor wire,” he said.

But RSAT inmates had classes to attend. They stayed in a 60-bed dormitory, mostly separated from the other inmates, and focused on the coursework needed to complete their program. They had classes during the day, 12-step meetings on Wednesdays and a Thursday afternoon seminar that Roberts said usually “just kind of turned into smack talk.”

And there were fights and drugs, even among an inmate population specifically there to get clean.

“There was more drug use in the RSAT program than there was in the detention center. There was weed, pills, meth, just about every day,” he said. “The officers didn’t care. The officers are the ones who bring it in.”

Hogan did not respond to questions about the drug use Roberts described.

But state prison officials acknowledge contraband is a running problem in Georgia prisons. During Roberts’ time at Coastal State, at least two correctional officers there were caught and charged with trying to smuggle banned items — tobacco and marijuana — into the facility. Inmates would light joints or meth or contraband tobacco by using pieces of metal to coax a spark from an electrical outlet, a risky technique they called “popping the socket.”

Fights were common, even though anyone caught risked having their time in RSAT extended — or getting sent back to their home county and resentenced. But punishment was rare: Roberts said he saw one fellow inmate get his sentence extended, and that was only after he’d sustained obvious injuries.

“Usually when somebody has a mark or something on them, they’ll ask him about it,” Roberts said. “And nine times out of 10, the person will say ‘I slipped’ or ‘I fell off my bunk.’ There’s not much they can do from there.”

Whatever it takes

Roberts said he got into one fight with someone else in the program who had been extorting commissary money from him. It was over quickly, and the two men agreed to avoid each other afterward.

“At that point, I only had a couple of months left,” he said. “I told him, ‘I realize we’ve got to be in the dorm, but I don’t really want to have anything to do with you. You just do what you have to do to go home, and I’ll do what I have to do to go home, and we’ll leave it at that.’”

But it beat being in the general population, where fights were more common and sometimes involved improvised knives.

“For the most part, people in the RSAT program realized the situation they were in,” Roberts said. “They had the opportunity to do nine months instead of several years, so they wanted to do whatever they could to go home.”

The first phase of the program was dominated by inmates complaining about the program, saying they didn’t want to be there in the first place, he said. Many of the RSAT inmates refused to admit they had drug problems, “which I found kind of strange with them sitting in a prison, saying what they were doing was all right.”

The most useful parts of the program dealt with stress and anger management, and with how to prepare for situations where he might be tempted to use drugs again, he said. Most of the inmates were young people like him, but some were in their 40s and 50s. One of his classmates was a methamphetamine addict who said he had been in prison for 36 of his 52 years.

“He was worried about getting out, because he said he doesn’t know how to act around civilized people. It’s really a whole different world. He said the program helped him, because he had a real bad drug addiction.”

Inmates weren’t forced to admit they were addicts: Roberts himself says he wasn’t. Instead, he said, the RSAT program taught them a method it called “acting as if,” which Roberts summarized as “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

“Their logic behind that is if you keep acting like you’re in recovery and doing good things, that eventually it’ll become a habit,” he said.

Back home, meanwhile, his mother had to grapple with “a really helpless feeling” as her son did his time.


“There hasn’t been a whole lot in his life that I haven’t in one way or another, sometimes through sheer tenacity, been able to sort out, and you can’t do that in there,” Mills said. “They don’t care. They don’t care if he was a good kid, if he was captain of his soccer team.”

In addition, her son was a middle-class white kid in a system she said seemed designed to pit inmates against each other.

“Corey’s always had a really diverse group of friends — still does,” Mills said. “But there were times I was on the phone with him I could hear him being called ‘cracker.’ They’d tell him, ‘Get off the phone, cracker.’ I was worried that he was going to come out a different person.

“We talked about that a lot,” she said. “I tried to tell him that those guys, they look at him and see a guy that on the worst days can probably get treated a little differently than they are. That’s kind of hard for somebody to grasp, because he wasn’t asking for anything different.”

Roberts said the experience “really opened my eyes” to what many inmates — who in Georgia are disproportionately African-American and poor — have to deal with. Many of those in the RSAT program with him “looked at it as life or death.”

“Some of them understood that if they got back out and started doing what they were doing, if the addiction didn’t kill them, they would end up back in prison, and not in a short-term program,” he said.

“In a sense, I kind of looked at it the same way. I’m not built for that kind of environment. It’s not someplace I want to spend any more time.”

Returning home

Roberts graduated from the RSAT program and was released on Aug. 20. He moved back in with his mother and stepfather in Newnan, about 30 miles south of Atlanta.


“It was overwhelming for my first two or three weeks when I got out,” he said. “I’m getting used to the flow of things again — just having the simple freedom to eat what I want, to go where I want for the most part, and not have to wait on somebody to open a door for me.”

Neil Campbell, the head of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said Roberts will face “all kinds of barriers” as he tries to resume his life. Many inmates have trouble getting jobs or even getting current identification like driver’s licenses and are disqualified from receiving financial aid.

“Just systemically, the institutionalized issues of coming out are going to be hard,” Campbell said. “But he’s going to have to not let that get him down. He’s going to have to figure out what he wants to do with his life from here on out.”

Within days of his release, Roberts had a job. He’d worked deep-fryers as a teenager, so getting on with a chicken joint was easy. It helped that the application didn’t feature the long-standard question about whether you’ve been convicted of a crime. When it came to the interview, he said, they didn’t ask; he didn’t tell. But they know now. His manager, a former police officer, is OK with it.

He’s had his first meeting with his probation officer, who came to Roberts’ house to introduce himself. In addition to periodic check-ins at the probation office, Roberts will be subject to monthly, announced drop-bys.

He’s set up a five-year payment plan for his fines and the fees that Georgia probationers get charged to cover the cost of their supervision. His total is $132 a month — and if he falls behind, he risks being sent back to prison. That happened to some of the people he knew in prison, some of whom were unable to get jobs because of their records and fell behind on their plans. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” he said.

He’s got another 8½ years of that. But still, it beats prison.

As a middle-class white kid from the suburbs, Roberts is hardly the typical prisoner of the War on Drugs. But there’s still a “huge” drug culture in the suburbs, Campbell said, and having the support of family and friends will be critical to staying out.

“The real work happens today,” she said. “When he’s out and he’s walking down the road and an old friend sees him and says, ‘Hey, man, c’mon, I’ll take you for a ride’ — that’s when the real work happens.”

Roberts is avoiding some of his old friends, while others trim their sails around him.

“I’ve got a couple of friends that smoke, but they for the most part won’t do it around me or even talk about it around me, because they know my situation and don’t want do anything that makes me want to smoke,” he said. “Which to be honest, I really don’t, because I’ve come to realize it’s not worth it. It’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”

Roberts wants to go back to school. He was studying psychology before going to prison, and he’d like to resume those studies. But it’s going to be harder to do without financial aid, for which he would have to apply through a special process for drug offenders. That means most likely he’ll be picking up classes at a more affordable community college before returning to a four-year institution.

But he said if there’s one thing he learned from prison, it’s patience.

“I feel like being in that environment helped me to grow up for sure,” he said. “I feel like I needed to be in that environment to look at the bigger picture of things, and see the path that I was taking, and see other people who had been doing it their whole lives and not wanting to be that person.”

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Juan - Smart on Safety
Juan, once a homeless heroin addict, now has a job and lends his family money.

LOS ANGELES — Juan, once homeless and addicted to heroin, was arrested when he broke into a warehouse. “It was empty, I just needed a place to sleep,” Juan said.

The police found drugs on Juan, and charged him for possession, which was prosecuted as a felony. The arrest was not his first and he went to prison on what was originally a multiyear sentence. Juan said he had been in and out of prison since 1983.

“I became a real bad drug addict,” he said. “I burned every bridge in my family.”

After the 2014 passage of California’s Proposition 47, however, Juan was eligible for reduction of his conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor, and he was released earlier this year.

(Prop. 47 is the state initiative that reduced six nonserious felonies to misdemeanors.)

When he got out, Juan received little or no re-entry assistance and was fearful he’d slip back into his addiction. “I knew I needed more help,” he said. He’d heard about a drug rehab center called the Amity Foundation, and managed to snag a spot in their program.

“I have a job today,” Juan said, tearing up as he explained that he now works at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Beverly Hills, California, and has stayed clean since his release from Amity. He has also repaired relationships with family members that he said he lost to his heroin addiction.

“All of the money I used to get went straight to the drugs … but today it goes to Chase,” he said, referring to the JP Morgan Chase Bank. “I have a debit card!” Juan said with a delighted grin. Now his family members ask him for a loan rather than the other way around, Juan said.

Juan told his story to a ballroom full of lawmakers, academics and criminal justice reform advocates, with a sprinkling of state and local officials, all of whom gathered in LA’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the passage of Prop. 47. The crowd showed up for this all-day summit called “Smart on Safety” to discuss next steps in the world of California’s justice reform.

How prosecutors could make big difference

One of the day’s most talked-about panels featured San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who are two of only three of the state’s district attorneys (out of 58) who publicly endorsed Prop. 47.

The prosecutors talked about their separate paths to the realization that California’s criminal justice system was in need of serious restructuring. Gascon and Rosen each made the point that prosecutors are in a unique position to bring about meaningful reform if they widen their perspectives.

Telling the story of his journey through law enforcement, which included serving as assistant chief of the LAPD, and San Francisco chief of police, Gascón said it became “increasingly obvious” to him that “the doors to the prisons and the jails” are controlled by district attorneys.

“District attorneys are the ones who decide who gets prosecuted, how they’re going to get prosecuted,” and to a great degree, the length of their sentence. As a result, they also have great power to affect reform, he said.

Rosen, who recently traveled to Germany to tour that country’s progressive prison system, told of his own awakening from the punishment-focused mindset: “I began to understand that, first of all, the distinction between crime victim and defendant is often artificial, and many of the defendants we were prosecuting were victimized early in their lives … and that if we did a better job helping people that were victims of crime, we may have fewer defendants in the future.”

Laundry list of next steps

In a later panel, Robert Rooks, the organizing director for Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), and the former national criminal justice director for the NAACP, laid out a list of five areas for justice reform in the state that he felt were the most important for the gathered crowd to consider. In that CSJ is the nonprofit that was the main organizer behind the passage of Prop. 47, audience members listened carefully.

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Rooks’ five-point “blueprint for reform” contained the following:

  1. “We believe that we must get ‘Smart on Jails,’” he said. “We have too many people that are stuck [in jail] because of the cash bond system.” He also said he was inspired by a new pilot program in Seattle called LEAD — Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion — in which cops participate in referrals to community programs, prebooking.
  2. “We also need to be ‘Smart on Sentencing,’” he said. For example, “we have thousands of people incarcerated today on a nonserious second strike offense. ...”
  3. Next on Rooks’ list was ‘Smart on Youth and Adult Sentences.’ “Prop. 21 has been talked about a number of times today,” he said, referring to the California ballot initiative passed in 2000 that increased a variety of criminal penalties for crimes committed by youth, and made it far easier to transfer young lawbreakers into the adult criminal justice system. “It’s so past time to stop having babies as young as 14 being tried as adults. So it’s time to go to the ballot to overturn Prop. 21.”
  4. “Smart on Re-entry” was next up. If re-entry is done right, he said, and some of the present barriers to success are removed that prevent the formerly incarcerated from succeeding, public safety is greatly enhanced, “And it builds trust back in the system.”
  5. Last Rooks pointed to ‘Smart on Safety,’ which he said meant investing “in programs to help people” — trauma recovery centers, mental health treatment programs, more funding for schools. “We have a billion dollars still locked up in the criminal justice system. We need to get that money out and invest it in programs in the community.”

The importance of personal testimony

Among the day’s the most persuasive voices calling for criminal justice reform was former film producer Scott Budnick, best known for producing the “Hangover” movie franchise, who left Hollywood behind to found the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).

Budnick was instrumental in pushing for the 2013 passage of California’s SB 260, a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole. He also was a prime mover behind SB 261, which built on 260, expanding parole eligibility to age 23, and was signed into law this year.

When questioned by panel moderator Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, California, Budnick said he thought it was the personal testimony of those locked up for youthful crimes that was, to a great degree, responsible for the surprising passage of SB 261.

“It was the stories of the people going into legislature, saying ‘This is who I was when I was 14. This is who I was when I was 20. I made the worst mistake of my life. I got locked up … The system didn’t change my life … I chose to change my life, and now I’m out, and this is what I’m doing.’ And no matter if we were sitting with Democrats, moderate Democrats, or Republicans, those stories blew their minds. And that was the game changer.”

Budnick talked about when he got his own mind blown at California State Prison at Pelican Bay, where he and a small cadre of advocates and attorneys held a seminar with people who had been convicted as juveniles, who were now locked in solitary confinement, but who could qualify for parole consideration under 260 and 261.

One of the encounters Budnick had was with a man who was about 60 years old. “I can’t get it out of my memory,” said Budnick. The man had been incarcerated for around 40 years for a teenage crime. Thirty of those years had been spent in isolation.

“And when we told him about SB 260, he started weeping. … knowing that he had the ability to now come home,” Budnick continued. Because the man was still solitary, Budnick could not talk to him face-to-face. Instead “he stuck his little finger through the hole in the cage and he shook my finger and said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever touched in 30 years.’”

Among the reform targets that Budnick wants to focus on next, he said, are the sentencing “enhancements” now on the books in California that can turn a relatively short sentence into one of multiple decades for young people, particularly if that young person can be labeled a gang member.

Panel member, Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights attorney for Human Rights Watch, agreed and listed additional justice issues affecting kids that she has on her radar. Front and center for Calvin is the matter of solitary confinement for juveniles, and the process of deciding whether or not a young person will be tried as adult, a decision she noted was once was in the hands of judges, that now, she said, was determined by prosecutors “about 70 percent” of the time.

In order to share some of the compelling justice stories he and fellow activists have witnessed, Budnick announced that he was working to raise $300 million to launch a new social justice-focused film company. The mission, Budnick said, was solely “to tell the right stories, and change the narrative.”

Foundations and justice reform

Philanthropic foundations, from the California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation, are all significant players in the state’s justice reform movement, and each of those foundations had representatives at the summit who talked about why their organizations were so committed.

For instance, Dr. Gail Christopher, who is the vice president and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, talked about race and incarceration, arguing that that if we as a nation don’t own up to that “absurd notion” of a “hierarchy of human value” that  leads to “disparities in education … health care access, residential segregation, lack of affordable housing,” a large percentage of the next generation will find themselves behind bars, too.

Building on Dr. Christopher’s points, Dr. Robert K. Ross, president of the California Endowment, said that justice reform work is “uncomfortable for many of our colleagues in the [philanthropy] field … because it forces us to confront issues of race and power.”

Foundations are much more comfortable funding research,” Ross said. “Getting the data out, and trusting that little elves will take those papers and turn them into really good public policies,” he continued.

Ross said that only within the last five years has the Endowment, a private foundation traditionally advocating for health access and equity in communities statewide, focused on criminal justice reform as a health issue.

“We had our view of what a healthy community looked like. We had our data, and our slides, and our charts,” said Ross. “And then, the community told us what their definition of a healthy community was. Included in their definition … was the disruption and the dismantling of the prison pipeline. We could not escape that conversation anywhere we went.

As the day came to a close, following a bunch of discussions between heavy-hitter panelists about issues like the connection between community health care and public safety, and racial bias in policing, and arts in re-entry and rehabilitation, civil rights attorney Van Jones praised California activists for helping to trigger the beginnings of bipartisan reform on a national level.

“The leadership in this room is changing the country,” Jones said. And still, miles remain on the road to equality in the criminal justice system.

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