A group of San Francisco prosecutors working in the recently formed community courts met with San Quentin prisoners, seeking insight into what leads young people into lives of crime and imprisonment.
“I believe that identifying individual kid issues is extremely important,” said Charlie Spence, serving a life sentence for a crime committed when he was 15 years old. “You must find out what their home life is like. Are they having a hard time learning in school?”
Spence added, “Personally, I never received the attention a young person should, nor was I paid attention to while in school; no excuses, that’s just the way it was. These are facts we should not ignore.”
The Nov 30 gathering included 13 employees from San Francisco’s District Attorney’s Office, and 30 prisoners convicted of various crimes ranging from minor drug possession to murder.
The forum came about after Assistant District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez visited the San Quentin Journalism Guild several months ago. After speaking with members of the San Quentin News staff, Rodriguez said she wanted to bring some of her colleagues into the prison to discuss ways to help at-risk youth avoid a life of crime by listening to personal stories of men who have been through the system.
Many of the men who attended the forum are involved with various self-help/rehabilitation groups in search of answers to their own deterrence from a life of crime. Many of the questions from the DAs focused on how the potential for violence might develop into actual violence. Some of the answers included: motives for violent behavior, where the behavior occurs, whether alcohol or weapons were a factor, or whether anyone else was involved beside the offender and the victim.
Some of the San Quentin prisoners talked about circumstances in their personal lives that ultimately lead them to the penitentiary. These personal stories were “extremely helpful for us to hear,” said a visiting DA. “This is something we can take back to our community.”
Nick Garcia for example, who has been in prison for 35 years, spoke about being beat as a kid at home as well as in school.
“I ran away over and over again,” said Garcia. “When I was 12, I ran away to hitchhike to my grandmother’s house. When the police picked me up, I would not tell them where I lived or give them my real name. I wanted them to send me to juvenile hall.”
Although Garcia says he does not draw on this as an excuse for his crime, it no doubt contributed to behavior that landed him in prison for life.
There are “evidence-based” programs behind the walls of San Quentin that operate as interventions to juvenile crime.
One such group is the San Quentin’s Utilization of Inmate Resources Experiences and Studies (SQUIRES). Representatives from SQUIRES attended the forum. The group’s goal is to initiate counseling workshops, seminars, lectures, and other projects intended to assist young people in overcoming antisocial behavior.
“Intervention needs to come before kids are sent to juvenile hall,” said David Basile, SQUIRES Chairman. “It appears to me that the visitors seem to agree with that perspective.”
Because of the “great work” of SQUIRES, it makes for a “most effective form of opening dialogue between us and the kids we work with,” said Rani Singh, one of the visitors. “What everyone talked about here today totally validates why I do what I do.”
Another “evidence-based” group at San Quentin is The Alliance for Change, which assists incarcerated individuals to reintegrate back into society through community building and civic engagement.
The Alliance for Change achieves its mission through social justice education, practical living training, and real community support upon their release from prison. The group’s chairman, Ricky. Malik Harris, began serving a life sentence when he was 26.
“One of the serious problems we have in the African-American and Hispanic communities is that we glorify the criminal lifestyle that got us here,” Harris said. “We really need to change that. We need to extend the individual rehabilitation programs to those men paroling. It may be hard, but it needs to be done.”
Among the visitors was Luis M. Aroche, an ex-felon. He was the first alternative sentencing planner to be hired by a district attorney in California, part of a new statewide plan to keep low-risk offenders from being sent to jail with much higher-risk prisoners.
“I grew up in the Mission District (San Francisco), one of eight children,” said Aroche. “My father worked as a security guard, and my mother was a maid. I spent time as a gang member, and I had several brushes with the law.”
San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascón hired Aroche with state funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan, designed to slim the bloated prison system, where two-thirds of released prisoners return to custody within three years.
“Youth violence can develop in different ways. Some children exhibit problem behavior in early childhood that gradually escalates to more severe forms of aggression before and during adolescence,” a report on juvenile violence affirms.
“It was a great opportunity for me to talk to the guys on the other side of the isle. I was interested in what may have prevented them from committing their crimes in the first place,” said Marc Massarweh, an assistant DA.
After the forum, Rodriguez shared that, “The most powerful part was observing my friends and colleagues taking in all of this. We are tasked with protecting and serving our communities and seeing the bigger picture of coming into San Quentin. It’s very powerful,” said Rodriguez. “It is important for us to know all aspects of the criminal justice system. This gives us an opportunity to find from offenders what would work or make things better.”
“The legislative trends evidenced during the past decade reflect a new understanding of adolescent development,” according to a recent report on juvenile justice. Investing in community-based alternatives and evidenced-based intervention programs are better serving youth and addressing juvenile crime, the report concludes.
Discussions at the National Conference of State Legislatures last June revealed, “Evidence-based programs or policies are supported by a rigorous outcome evaluation that clearly demonstrates effectiveness.” Some of the examples given of various programs that have worked for example are, “multi-systematic therapy, family functional therapy, and aggression replacement training.” These are evidence-based interventions in place in juvenile justice systems today in at least eight states. California is not included in that list of states providing these programs.