Mountain View Voice

News - May 11, 2007

On the mend at James ranch

Investment in county's 64-bed youth facility appears to be paying off

by Daniel DeBolt

If arrested by the police, Santa Clara County's most troubled 15- to 18-year-old boys are often sent to the William F. James Boys Ranch in Morgan Hill, the largest of three youth facilities in the county.

But like the inmates, the ranch itself has had a troubled history, with numerous break-outs and other problems. In 2005, for example, its inmates escaped 164 times.

The alarming number was one reason why the county decided to spend $3 million on improving the 64-bed ranch last year despite a budget crisis. A champion of those improvements, county Supervisor Liz Kniss, arranged for the Voice to visit the facility last week.

The ranch sits between a creek and a mountain at the end of East Cochrane Road, and is now surrounded by a 12-foot chain-link fence (previously there was no fence) and a suburb. Recently, said ranch director Mike Simms, detainees pushed a soccer goal up to the fence and jumped over — "You've got to be kidding," he said at the time — but since January of last year, only 10 inmates have escaped.

Besides the fence, this is apparently due to a new program in place at the ranch, including counseling which has significantly improved the behavior of the detainees.

Last year, Kniss joined a diverse group of law enforcement representatives — including public defenders, district attorneys, probation officers, police and judges — in pushing for improvements to the facility, Many traveled to Missouri to get a look at the "Missouri model" for operating youth detention facilities. Missouri's young detainees were as hardened as Santa Clara County's, but they slept in bunk beds with colorful sheets, wore their own clothes and had special bonds with their counselors.

Back at James ranch, some staff balked at the Missouri model, deriding it as a "hug a thug" program. But no one could argue with Missouri's 92 percent success rate, especially since Santa Clara County's was 60 percent.

At James ranch, the typical army barracks-style single room has been divided into smaller "pods," with wooden bunk beds, couches and TVs. Ubiquitous white boards are evidence of the morning counseling sessions, as the pods' members discuss each detainee's strengths and weaknesses. Members of the rival Norteno and Sureno gangs sleep in the same quarters and are asked to reveal their feelings in front of their former enemies.

"Kids will tell you it's harder now than it was before," Simms said, referring to changes on the streets of Mountain View and elsewhere in the county. Three detainees who spoke to the Voice agreed.

Simms has been at the ranch for more than a decade, arriving before budget cuts took the ranch on a turn for the worse. Now there are 16 new counselors, some plucked from the best gang prevention organizations in the county.

The newer counselors don't always agree with the methods of the older counselors, who are used to a tougher, more traditional approach than a rehabilitative one. One detainee described them as "police officers, not counselors," but added that they're not all bad.

The new program also enlists help from the detainees' families to customize each one's rehabilitation program — a change which staffers say has made a big difference. It also allows staff members to reach out to families that usually need a lot of support.

Simms said it's too early to give proper statistics on the new program's success rate, but he's seen some big changes, such as rival gang members complimenting each other on a project.

"That's huge," Simms said.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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