Sparky Harlan

Sparky Harlan

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

Posts by Sparky Harlan

Shooting Shows Need for Better Gun Laws

A 9-year-old boy in Washington, described as frightened and crying, sat in front of a judge in juvenile court waiting to see if he would be granted bail for a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. The boy found a gun at his mother’s house, put it in his backpack and took it to school. When he put his backpack down, the gun went off, critically wounding an 8-year-old girl. This comes from a brief Associated Press article in a local paper. There are questions that went through my mind about this story: How is a nine-year-old competent to stand trial? And, Washington State grants bail for kids? Thee state of California doesn’t do that–isn’t bail to make sure someone shows up for court? And why did he bring the gun to school?


Day One at End Homelessness Conference

On day one at The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference on youth and family homelessness, my enthusiasm started to wane after eight hours of meetings. One thing is clear, though: Nobody really knows how many homeless youth there are in the country, but we can’t wait around for the research before doing something about the problem.

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Ending Youth and Family Homelessness

Today I am headed to Los Angeles to attend a national conference focused on ending youth and family homelessness by 2020. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has worked hard to draw attention to not only ending chronic homelessness, but addressing the different approaches in working with youth and families.

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Juvenile Justice Cut Would be a Mistake

One of Governor Brown’s budget trigger cuts for California is the $72 million spent on the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ, formerly the California Youth Authority). The governor is proposing to shut down the state juvenile justice detention system and send the youth back to the counties for rehabilitation. On the surface, this seems like a good move—DJJ has a horrible reputation for punishing wards and providing little rehabilitative services.

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Scared Straight Programs Are All Talk

“Scared Straight”, the popular 1978 documentary by Arnold Shapiro, has been brought to television as “Beyond Scared Straight.” I avoided watching the new reality television series because all the research shows the scare tactics of taking kids to jail for a day does not work. I was hoping that after one season the show would die and just go away. Unfortunately, it is back for a new season. 

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Scared Straight Tactics Don’t Work

Many juvenile offender services are not effective and some methods, like “shock incarceration treatment,” such as Scared Straight, actually worsen anti-social behavior. Unfortunately, with TV reality shows touting such interventions, communities continue to support these high-profile, ineffective programs. The thinking is: ‘We will just scare them into changing their ways.’ Only by looking at certain studies do we see that mixing youthful offenders with adult criminals, or with like-minded peers, only increases the chances that they will commit another crime. 

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Juvenile Hall Only Creates More Convicts

I have been working most of my adult life to reduce the number of kids locked up in jails. It has been an uphill battle in most communities, especially in the last decade when we have passed legislation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. A new report is out by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation that supports my belief that juvenile hall is not rehabilitative and is ineffective in preventing future criminal behavior.


Field Trips for Homeless Youth?

Last week, during a tour of our downtown Drop-In Center for homeless youth, a donor watched as all our kids piled into a van for a trip to the beach. The donor questioned why we would take youth on an outing, rather than focus on the immediate needs of housing, employment, and education. The tone of the question said more than the words – the donor thought it was frivolous. It occurred to me that he may not be the only one who feels this way. 

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Legislation Will Help Foster Youth

Editor’s Note: Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a new columnist for San Jose Inside. She is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a flurry of bills. One that missed the media’s attention was AB 194, authored by our own assemblyman, Jim Beall. As legislation goes, this was a simple bill—youth aging out of foster care (ages 18-24) will now have priority to register for classes in state community colleges and universities. There was no opposition to the bill. 

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