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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Locked up potential Mentors transform lives in California's youth prisons


JACQUINN SCALES has done hard time behind bars since he was 16, often spending 23 hours a day in a small jail cell in Stockton. Now he's out and thriving, working two jobs, going to college with big plans to be a psychiatrist and help troubled youth like he once was.

But the 23-year-old Richmond man is an exception.

Nearly 75 percent of youth under 25 who are locked behind bars end up back in the system within three years; the numbers have been as high as 90 percent in the past.

David Muhammad (left) has been mentoring Jacquinn Scales, a former Youth Authority inmate. Scales, now 23, attends college thanks to Muhammad, who has followed his successful change for the last six years. (Ray Chavez - STAFF) While California is in the midst of a debate about youth prison reform, a critical piece overlooked in the past is how to make sure youth who leave the system which they all will don't end up returning. "If someone doesn't have a job, a place to live, no family or no mentors, they're either going back into the youth system, or escalate into the adult system," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Juvenile justice experts such as Krisberg say that the main focus of rehabilitation should be on how to transition out of prison and into society because all young people who are locked up eventually return to their communities.

Taxpayers have been funding a $450 million system that has continued to fail to rehabilitate youth, yet there are models that work better -- not only from other states, but within California.

Currently, a minimum of $70,000 is spent on each of about 3,000 young people locked up in the youth prison system each year, but none of the funding goes directly to community rehabilitation programs.

The Mentoring Center, based in Oakland, is an example what many juvenile experts would like to see: regional centers focused on rehabilitation and treatment, with a therapeutic environment, instead of jail cells watched over by uniformed prison guards. The mentors work with young men in the system while they are behind bars, then continue to work with them once they leave.

'Mind games'

"(It's) a real funny system," says Scales, who spent four years in several different California Youth Authority prisons, ending when he was 21 at N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton,

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