But her commitment to youth continues

By Bill Sessa, Information Officer I

As Rachel Rios prepared to leave CDCR for a new chapter in her career, she saw her professional and personal lives coming full circle.  Her surroundings were going to change, but what would not was her unshakable belief that youth who make major mistakes early in life can change and her dedication to their rehabilitation. 

Joining CDCR as a juvenile parole agent, Rios rose through the ranks, holding a variety of positions in institutions, in the field and in headquarters over the last 25 years.  They include stints in parole, community services, case management, and as an Assistant Superintendent.  In June 2008, Rios was appointed Director of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Parole Division before assuming the job as Chief Deputy Secretary for DJJ.

In her next position as executive director of La Familia, a Sacramento social services agency, Rios is returning to her professional roots.

“I started my career in a non-profit organization,” Rios said, working as a substance-abuse counselor.  “It was always a goal of mine to open a nonprofit or go to work for one,” she added.

It was not surprising that she was recruited to replace an iconic director who has run the La Familia for 33 years.  Throughout her career, Rios has volunteered for local nonprofits, which have benefitted from her executive abilities honed, in part, by the Harvard School of Government. 

Beyond her resume, her dedication to service organizations is personal and heartfelt.

“I owe my life to a nonprofit,” she confesses.  “I was a run-away and would not have graduated from high school without the help of Concilio,” she said, referring to a Sacramento-area organization that encouraged her to finish high school and helped her fill out applications for what was then Sacramento State College.
Rios also has seen the DJJ full circle as well.  It has gone from a national leader in youth rehabilitation as the California Youth Authority, to the target of a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional care, to its re-emergence with a strong focus on educating and rehabilitating youthful offenders most in need of help.  She has even seen one of the DJJ’s strongest critics credit the program for turning itself around. 

As the DJJ re-makes itself in the wake of court-monitored reforms called for in the Farrell settlement, Rios sees progress and achievement, which she is quick to credit to the dedication of the DJJ staff she leaves behind.

“You can’t always pick the time when an opportunity will present itself,” she said of the overture from La Familia.  That makes her departure from DJJ “bittersweet”, she said.   DJJ still has progress to make to fulfill the promises of the Farrell reforms, “but we’re almost there,” said Rios.

The final push will be in the hands of others.  “You have to develop the people who follow you,” she said, reflecting her confidence in them.  “We’ve accomplished everything as a strong team and I’ll still be on the sidelines cheering them on.”

As she was leaving CDCR and DJJ, Rios shared her thoughts about the need for DJJ and the value of working to rehabilitate youth so they can live more constructive lives.

You have devoted your entire career to treating juvenile offenders. How important is it that we treat juveniles differently than adult inmates?

It is critical because they are maturing and can continue to grow and change. Juvenile offenders have many different needs, and the reasons they commit crimes are generally very different from those of adults. There are physical and emotional immaturities, significant peer pressure, and hormonal and other developmental issues. Research now tells us that brain maturity in areas impacting cognitive reasoning and decision-making is not fully developed until early 20s.  That shows youth “grow out” of crime and delinquency.  As juveniles mature into young adults, they have better reasoning abilities to make better choices. 

You have been a senior executive in the former CYA and DJJ. You’ve seen the organization go from a national leader to losing its way to regaining its professionalism. How are things compared with the mid-’90s when DJJ had 10,000 youth in 11 facilities?

When I came into CYA/DJJ in the early ’80s, we had a very progressive Director, who understood the importance of working with our local communities and counties.  He developed a mission statement and values that most of us still work by. He encouraged staff to be creative and to try different program approaches both in facilities and in our parole units.  We worked closely with each county to provide funding for delinquency prevention or for juvenile hall issues.  He developed workshops in which we could share our success with others and learn from them. The state was in a different situation during that time, and offenders were different too.

In the late ’80s and into the ’90s we all experienced the significant increase in juvenile crime and gang violence.  The crack wars and the level of street crime gave rise to terms like “super predators” to describe youthful offenders.  Most states, including California, adopted a “tough on crime” approach.  Sentencing laws lowered the age that youth could be tried as adults.  Our facilities changed from “reform school” models to “youth correctional facilities.”  Our staff titles changed from group supervisors to youth correctional officers.  These youth had significant problems and dysfunctions and staff injuries were incredibly high.  We had so many youth coming into our system, and we could not adequately accommodate the sheer numbers and intensity of their issues.

Youth with mental health issues required significant resources, but they were not coming.  We consolidated general population units to increase efficiency and pushed resources toward high need populations.  I think this might have been an adult model approach, but that doesn’t work with young people.  Those general population units started to blow up, and programming became increasingly difficult to provide in a safe manner.  I believe everyone tried to do what they could.  But this whole phenomenon was new, and California was ground zero for the gang activity that swept the nation during that time.

Other states experienced similar issues, and some pushed many of these offenders into the adult system.  While we changed our laws, we did not push our youth to adult prisons with the same intensity, and that is why DJJ has the most difficult and serious offenders of any state juvenile justice system.

Eventually all this led to the Farrell litigation, which required that DJJ develop plans to remediate issues. Many of us agreed that we needed to reform the system, but not just go back to the “old” way.  This time we needed to use the research and evidence to incorporate programs with proven track records of effectiveness.  With limited resources, we really want to focus on things that work or that have promising results.

This has been a challenge, because most state juvenile systems have pushed these youth into adult systems.  Our population tends to be older and have more prior criminal history than other systems. So, it took longer for us to develop and customize a model for our reforms, our blue print that we call the Integrated Behavior Treatment Model (IBTM).

While we started some phases of reform and training earlier, we really have only been in the full implementation phase for a little over a year.  We are seeing promising results.  Thirty-one of our 33 units are functioning very well and, on average, meeting and exceeding our mandates for program services.
How difficult was it to get DJJ to change as an organization and embrace the importance of treatment and the reforms that came about because of the Farrell lawsuit?

The difficulty was not to get the organization to embrace treatment.  It was defining the model of treatment that DJJ would use. Because we are a unique state-level juvenile system, we could not just duplicate the Missouri Model or the Washington’s JRA Model.  We had to work with many experts to develop a model that incorporated the complex issues of our agency, and that required time.

It is true that our successful implementation of the IBTM will require a cultural shift for staff.  But most people who work with juveniles do so because they already believe in the youth’s ability to grow and change. So, the challenge is to get everyone trained on the model, the skills, and the intervention programs so they can start using these new tools.

DJJ has been criticized for the cost of treating youth, but has reduced that cost significantly. Even so, the cost per youth is four times greater than the cost of housing an adult inmate. How important is it for the state to continue to make that kind of financial investment in youthful offenders?

We have done a remarkable job of reducing DJJ’s per capita cost.  Our managers and staff, in cooperation with our experts and the Office of the Special Master, have worked to reduce costs since early last year. It has been painful, but we are a much leaner and better functioning organization for it.

You cannot compare the adult and juvenile costs.  They are apples and oranges.  They have very different missions.  However, as the adult population begins to decline, you should anticipate an increase in adult costs, because it’s just an economy of scale situation.

As DJJ’s population declined, our per capita went up because of fixed facility costs.   This forced us to close many facilities over the last five to seven years.  We think we have the right number for our population now, and this will help us maintain efficiencies.  Considering labor costs, we are now competitive to what other states spend on juvenile justice systems.  More important, we are now competitive to what California counties would need to spend to create comparable services.

The state’s investment in DJJ is an investment in California’s youth.  These youth would most likely be in prison if DJJ was not an option.  The cost of sentencing youth to long terms in prison is not necessarily cost effective, not to mention the social cost of discarding a generation.

How would you assess DJJ’s progress toward becoming the organization envisioned by the Farrell reforms?

While reducing our costs was a significant achievement, it is not enough. We need to offer quality and effective services for the youth we believe can still benefit and change.  We are on the cusp of turning that corner.  Our Sex Behavior Treatment Program has recently been evaluated by experts and is on its way to being a national model.  Our next round of audits from the court should show another year of continued improvement.  We hope to assume monitoring for several of the remedial plans that have consistently been in substantial compliance.

This has been a long effort, and our staff should feel proud that their hard work and efforts are paying off.  I am confident that they will soon be able to reclaim California’s prominence in providing quality services and programs to our most difficult and challenging youth.