In the official records of San Diego’s Juvenile Justice Commission he is known simply as Derrick C. Derrick was 12 years old the first time he appeared in a criminal courtroom, in 1990, wearing county-issued work pants and a T-shirt too large for his slender frame. A teacher had ordered him to the principal's office but Derrick refused to go. He cursed and carried on until finally he picked up a nearby pitcher of water and heaved it. The jug crashed and splintered far short of the front of the room, where the teacher stood, but flying glass struck two of his classmates. Derrick was in court that morning in 1990 charged with three counts of battery and one count of vandalism.
Derrick had been in and out of county-financed programs since the age of eight. Up until his classroom temper tantrum, he had been an enormous financial burden on the county’s mental health department and also on the school system. Indeed, inside the county bureaucracy, his was what is called a "fallout" case: a kid promoted to the criminal justice system not so much because he has committed some terrible crime, but because a county department seeks to transfer this budget-breaker to a budget other than its own.
Alan Francey is a six-year veteran of the public defender’s juvenile division. Francey met Derrick shortly after the youngster’s first court appearance. “By that point. Derrick had been in residential care,” Francey says. “He had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. It should have been obvious to all concerned that he was in need of some kind of program that would offer a high degree of treatment.”
Facilities for emotionally disturbed children in California are classified based on a complicated formula that ranks each between 1 and 14. The higher the number, the more intense the program offered. Doctors had figured Derrick would best be served in a level 12 facility. Whatever services he would need were bound to be expensive.
Francey is not a lawyer; he devises appropriate sentences for juveniles represented by his office so that a public defender can offer a concrete proposal when arguing before a judge. Had Francey had his way — had he been deemed the judge responsible for Derrick’s fate — the boy would have been sent back to the mental health system. For one thing, level 12 facilities willing to accept disturbed youngsters who have a criminal record are rare. For another, there are the particulars of this case. Derrick was only 12. His crime, while requiring that the authorities do something, was hardly the kind of violation that demanded he be treated as a criminal. By all accounts, he was a deeply disturbed child with a hair-trigger temper who lacked the skills to cope with authority. He was precisely the sort of kid destined to fail in the large institutional settings that house those violators sentenced to serve time by a juvenile court judge. Yet it was inside such a facility that Derrick ended up.
Derrick was “true found” — the euphemism for a guilty verdict inside the juvenile-justice system — on the single charge of battery on a school official. That relieved Mental Health of this expensive problem biting into their budget for tens of thousands of dollars a year but burdened the county Probation Department with a financial obligation that promised to be equally large, if not larger. Derrick was sent to a level 7 residential treatment facility, where he lasted all of two months. He*at around Juvenile Hall for several months until the authorities could secure a bed at a level 10 facility. Two months into Derrick’s tenure, though, state regulators put that facility out of business. Derrick was shipped back to the Hall, a 300-plus bed facility that houses side by side juveniles awaiting trial for serious crimes and kids like Derrick trapped in a bureaucratic holding pattern.
Derrick’s next stop was a level 6 facility. Six months later, he was discharged for repeatedly fighting with other kids and staff. Branded a program washout, he was carted off — after another protracted stint at the Hall — to Rite of Passage, a boot-camp-style facility in the Nevada desert. The California Youth Authority (CYA), the harshest punishment meted out by juvenile court judges, is in theory reserved for the state’s most violent juvenile offenders. Programs like Rite of Passage specialize in diverting repeat juvenile offenders from the life of crime that is all but assured once a juvenile hits the CYA.
By then Derrick had turned 14. Rite of Passage offers the kind of highly structured program a child like Derrick would need, but its general clientele rendered Derrick, there on a misdemeanor battery, a choir boy by comparison. After six months, he was discharged for a medical ailment, though His infirmity seemed only to hasten the inevitable. At a place known for its impatience with infidels, his record was replete with write-ups for rule violations of all kinds. He was sent back to Juvenile Hall with yet another black mark staining his record.
Twelve months is the maximum sentence on a misdemeanor battery. Yet time spent either in a treatment center or what’s called a “24-hour school” (any noncounty institution, such as Rite of Passage, that keeps juveniles under around-the-clock guard and therefore needs to offer schooling on site) does not count toward time served. More than two years had passed since Derrick was first arrested but — back at the Hall following his Rite of Passage program failure — he was still several months from serving his 12-month maximum. His status was still uncertain when 3 months into his final stay at the Hall a solution presented itself. Derrick punched a staff member, spelling his doom. He was charged with assault on a peace officer, a felony that carried a three-year sentence. On the recommendation of the county’s Probation Department, and with the concurrence of a superior court judge. Derrick was banished to the CYA, at a cost of between $32,000 and $44,000 a year, depending on whose cost estimates one believes.