Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton made a case for her “Reimagine Youth Justice Task Force,” a varied group of advocates working to divert as many young offenders as possible away from incarceration and toward more progressive programs.

Becton spoke about the “Reimagine” group at a recent meeting of the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council — the council’s first meeting since Becton announced its formation on Aug. 4.

The district attorney said her group plans to emphasize prevention over punishment, divert as many youthful offenders as possible away from “involvement in the system” and toward restorative justice, in which young offenders work to repair the damage their actions caused.

The Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility is located between Byron and Discovery Bay in East Contra Costa County. (Photo courtesy of Contra Costa County)

The task force would include as wide a variety of members — education scholars, mental health and substance abuse professionals, elected officials, other community members — as possible, Becton said.

She noted that there has been a steady decline in youth crime in Contra Costa and statewide, but the county has California’s fifth-highest rate of racial disparity in its juvenile justice system. That, she said, must change.

Becton supports closing the county’s Juvenile Hall in Martinez and keeping open the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, also called the Byron Boys Ranch, in east Contra Costa.

Chief County Probation Officer Esa Ehmen-Krause, under whose purview both facilities fall, has a plan to close the Byron Boys Ranch and move some of its services to Juvenile Hall. She reiterated that position Wednesday.

Sentiment favors Byron Boys Ranch

The debate over which to close was a prominent part of the county Board of Supervisors’ 2020-21 budget public discussions in recent weeks. And during Wednesday’s meeting, most with an opinion favored keeping the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility open.

The Boys Ranch is a minimum-security facility that offers specialized treatment. It also has relationships with community “partners” that allow its residents to take part in activities ranging from small-engine repair to St. Mary’s College baseball clinics to tutoring from residents at the Rossmoor senior community in Walnut Creek.

“At the Boys Ranch, there’s a mindset of hope, not just survival.”

Alphonso Guerrero, Byron Boys Ranch worker

While a few people attending Wednesday’s meeting warned against closing Juvenile Hall because the most violent young offenders go there, most said they favor keeping the Boys Ranch and guiding more resources there.

“Youth prisons are putting them further at risk and systematically traumatizing them,” said Cheryl Suddath of the Contra Costa Racial Justice Coalition. “They’re in worse shape when they come out than when they went in.”

Added Alphonso Guerrero, who works at the Orin Allen facility: “At the Boys Ranch, there’s a mindset of hope, not just survival.”

Tamisha Walker, executive director of the Safe Return Project helping young offenders return to life on the outside, said she is all for different, and better, ways of thinking and acting.

“The idea is we’re trying to sustain a system that has not worked,” she said. “I think we’re continuing to lose our ability to imagine a new system.”