California's juvenile prison system - where living conditions can be cruel and recidivism rates high - is widely acknowledged as a failure. Gov. Jerry Brown even recently urged lawmakers to transfer state control of young offenders to local governments.
But as counties scramble to come up with programs deserving of state subsidies, Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY), an education and mentoring program based in Milpitas, could offer a good model. During the past ten years the nonprofit group has won admiration and budget support from prosecutors, judges, and probation officials in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, who credit its programs for keeping kids out of the penal system altogether.
FLY is the vision of former college basketball star Christa Gannon, who was a Stanford law student on track to become a prosecutor. But when she volunteered with minors who were serving time in county-run maximum-security detention halls, the kids convinced her that more positive support and a better understanding of the legal consequences of their actions could have changed their lives. They helped Gannon design a program combining legal education, mentoring partnerships, and opportunities for community service. Today, some 2,000 young people - half of whom are on probation - participate in the project annually.
"We're strength finders," Gannon says of her group's philosophy. "That young man on the street corner selling drugs? He's probably really good at marketing, and may [just] need some redirection."
The program is transforming lives while also saving taxpayer dollars. Whereas research indicates that roughly 55 percent of juveniles released from incarceration commit new crimes within one year, only 25 percent of youth in the first year of FLY's leadership program end up reoffending. On average, counties spend $100,000 a year to keep a kid behind bars, whereas even FLY's most expensive program costs no more than $9,000 per youth. That's quite a deal.