Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility

Innovation, One Program at a Time

May 22, 2014 | by Lee Seale, Chief Probation Officer, Sacramento County Probation Department 

In the last five years, Sacramento County’s juvenile hall in California has undergone a significant culture change, overcoming claims of excessive force and over-reliance on room confinement. With an emphasis on rehabilitation and positive interventions, our juvenile hall now strives to provide specialized programming to better prepare youth to return to their families and reintegrate into society. It has become a national model of innovative practices.

In 2013, the paradigm shift within the juvenile hall culminated in Sacramento County Probation Department receiving the Barbara Allen-Hagen Award from Performance-Based Standards for the second time. The department’s juvenile hall received the award in the short-term detention center category.

Performance-Based Standards is a nationwide program created in 1994 by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and administered by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. This program is a self-improvement and accountability tool that addresses areas critical to the success of juvenile justice facilities in meeting their dual mission of providing public safety and rehabilitating youth. It uses standardized data definitions and outcome measures to provide correctional administrators across the country with comparative information to guide facility improvements.

Hundreds of juvenile correctional agencies across the United States participate in Performance-Based Standards. The Sacramento County Probation Department has successfully participated since May 2009. In Sacramento, this collaborative process involves agencies responsible for providing services to youth housed in the juvenile hall, including the county’s probation department, Office of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Juvenile Medical Systems, and Behavioral Health Services.

Several programs are available to youth within the juvenile hall, both facility-wide and at the housing unit level, which offers the high-impact unit and the special needs unit. The high-impact unit opened in September 2011, housing violent youth with serious discipline issues who cannot be housed in a less restrictive unit. To inspire long-term success upon reentry in the community, enrolled youth work to achieve daily goals that encourage prosocial behavior and acceptance of the established rules and regulations. In order to complete the high-impact program, youth must complete an intake packet, personal growth questionnaire, developmental audit and growth plan report, workbooks, cognitive worksheets, journaling, life skills, conflict resolution, watch a juvenile justice video, and obtain seven good behavior days.

The special needs unit was created in March 2013 to promote a healthy and safe environment for residents with special needs, including youth with psychosis, severe ADHD, and psychotic episodes and those who are subject to emotional disturbances. Prior to the establishment of this unit, youth with special needs frequently retreated to their rooms and isolated themselves after negative interactions with other youth. The special needs unit allows for more flexibility in scheduling, providing enhanced interactions, services, and additional programming.

Further, facility-wide programs address an extensive array of topics from coping with stress, anger, and pain to participating in vocational and educational services. Examples of three such endeavors include the Baby Elmo Program, the Garden Program, and the Northern California Construction Training Program.

Baby Elmo

On February 14, 2010, the Baby Elmo program was launched at the juvenile hall. The program provides incarcerated youth the opportunity to strengthen the bonds between themselves and their children. The program is a collaborative effort between the Youth Law Center and Dr. Rachel Barr of Georgetown University. Several departments across the United States are participating in the program with encouraging results.

The program uses Sesame Street’s Sesame Beginnings videos and curriculum. Baby Elmo participants complete training sessions, followed by supervised visits with their child. During visits, participants apply the parenting skills learned during the training sessions. After each visit, the participant and facilitator complete a post-session questionnaire, which allows the participant to describe the visit and explain what they enjoyed or what they would like to try during the next visit.

The Garden Program

The Garden Program started in 2011, transforming a once-barren field at the juvenile hall into a garden oasis. This new approach to youth involvement has resulted in important discussions on how to grow vegetables and their nutritional content. Youth are involved in the process, starting with the proper time to plant seeds and culminating in the harvesting of the vegetables.

The vegetables are distributed to the housing units, allowing youth to make their own salads. They can choose from different types of produce and ask about the various types of vegetables. Overall youth reactions have been positive, resulting in a sense of pride and accomplishment for their participation.

Northern California Construction Training Program

On February 24, 2014, the probation department and the Office of Education introduced a new program in conjunction with the Northern California Construction Training Program that provides youth with an introduction to the construction trade as a part of the school curriculum.

A construction training program instructor teaches courses, which include the basics of construction, safety training, math, and reading. The curriculum includes hands-on experience within two weeks of beginning the program, and youth learn how math and reading skills are put to practical use. Youth complete projects in conjunction with other juvenile hall programs, such as plans to build benches and pots for the garden program. This program will not only build self-esteem once youth see their products built but also allow youth to apply their skills immediately at home and provide opportunities for future employment.

The Sacramento County Probation Department continues to strive toward implementing innovative and rehabilitative programming within our juvenile hall. Encouraging youth to participate in programs will help develop their personal skills beyond their stay at the facility and inspire them to be productive members of society. It is hoped that the focus on providing rehabilitative programming for youth will support the department’s overall goal of improving public safety and reducing recidivism.

Lee Seale, the Sacramento County Probation Department’s chief probation officer, has extensive experience partnering with public and private agencies and has the vision and ability to strengthen offender supervision, treatment, services, and accountability in the county. Prior to this, he served as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s director of Internal Oversight and Research and as acting secretary of Legislative Affairs, developing and implementing legal, legislative, and administrative policies related to prison overcrowding, realignment, parole reform, recidivism research, and community corrections initiatives. He has worked with public and private leaders on critical issues of public safety in the wake of realignment. A graduate of the UC Davis School of Law, Chief Seale earned his MA from Arizona State University and a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz.