MORAGA -- Photographer and activist Richard Ross has a blunt assessment of America's juvenile justice system.

He emphatically proclaims that if there is one network in this country that demands change, it is the one he believes is increasing criminalization of the nation's young people.

As part of Saint Mary's College's 2014 "Jan Term" Speaker Series, Ross presented a combination of intimate stories, stark statistics and haunting photographs that conveyed the power and conviction in his "Juvenile in Justice" project. Visiting 200 youth facilities in 31 states, he conducted more than 1,000 interviews as part of his research.

One of Richard Ross’ "Juvenile in Justice" images is this one from the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro, the Fresh
One of Richard Ross' "Juvenile in Justice" images is this one from the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro, the Fresh Start Cafe is run by the young residents there, as a way to teach job skills.

The 67-year-old UC Santa Barbara professor -- his resume, if not his statuesque physicality and raw, aggressive tone -- commanded attention. His work runs the gamut from a Time magazine Guantánamo Bay cover to worldwide exhibitions to a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship for a photographic collection, "Architecture of Authority," to awards and honors for the book, exhibition and the cause inflaming his current passion.

His Jan term presentation was designed to rub like sandpaper on the consciences of his audience.

Ross claims the juvenile justice system is "too screwed up: you can't reduce it to sound bites" or to a Facebook page. But, propelled by an urgency to engage young people in "a world that demands solutions," he said he employed both. He invited a full-body plunge into an issue he likened to "slavery ... happening 20 minutes away on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel."

"Juvenile in Justice" includes images taken at San Leandro's Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro.

Walnut Creek criminal attorney Chris Varnell, in a separate interview, said the problematic characteristics of the issue do indeed hit "close to home." Varnell has defended juveniles in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties and said incarceration is ineffective because it forces minors to go to class, punishes them for nonconformity and then thrusts them back into reality. For many, that "reality" is a broken home, with dead or drug- and crime-addicted parents -- which boomerangs youths back into gangs, crime, and violence.

"No matter how long these kids are locked up, or how much money we throw at the problem, nothing changes," Varnell said.

And the system in California "throws" a lot of money. The state's overall high cost of living is echoed by the tab for building facilities and paying the guards, teachers, probation officers and personnel required to operate them. Ross said California spends $224,712 annually to house a juvenile in San Leandro's facility. The national average is $88,000 according to the American Correctional Association.

Worse, both experts said a large percentage of those incarcerated are more

often guilty of POA ("Piss off an adult," as Ross put it) than of serious crimes. Varnell said 14-year-olds, especially those in low-income areas, have their futures decided by a fearful, punitive society that labels bullying as robbery and "reminds" kids they're not meant to do anything meaningful with their lives. "They are to go to jail, much like their fathers and uncles," he said. Kids in high-income areas are often provided second chances and spared the scrutiny of a probation officer or a judge, he added.

Ross, who licenses his photographic images at no charge, said, "I can't do much, but I can take a picture, make a movement."

His art is not a tool or decoration. "Art should be a weapon when you're trying to right an injustice," he insisted.

Richard Ross, executive director and creator of the Juvenile in Justice project, told a recent Saint Mary’s College "Jan Term" audience
Richard Ross, executive director and creator of the Juvenile in Justice project, told a recent Saint Mary's College "Jan Term" audience that the nation's juvenile system is itself in need of major corrections.

Incendiary language aside, Ross's "gentle giant" technique protects his subjects' identities by blurring or cropping their faces or by taking images from behind the young subjects.

"I sit on floor cells. I put kids in a position of authority. I'm an older white guy -- not standing over them and shouting. It's amazing what that equation does."

An image of a frightened, fifth-grade boy in Reno prompted Ross to ask why.

"When I was growing up, we had a place in school, (not in a) detention center. He has no belt, shoes, shoelaces. He's not a thug." Ross recalled comforting the boy, saying, " 'Don't worry, your mommy will be here soon.' "

Another image showed an 18-year-old Alameda boy at the San Leandro detention center, separated by law from younger youths and provided his own wing of the facility, with its own teachers and three guards.

The media, he said, has created a world of "superpredators" in order to "scare rich, middle-age white people" and sell "news."

Regardless of political party or ideological perspective, he asked, "Can we agree this is a bad use of resources?"

The audience -- as does the issue itself -- begged for solutions. Ross said, "Take out your earbuds, put down your phones and listen to the world."

On a practical level, he said preventing kids from ever crossing the threshold of juvenile detention facilities by putting services into the community is a first step.

"Girls and Boys Clubs are amazingly effective," he said, "Go and help. I don't have clear cut answers. My confusion is legitimate. You have to investigate this world, if you think something is wrong."

Locally, Varnell said meaningful change will come only if society digs deeper. Aftercare programs protecting minors from the elements that forged their misfortune will help.

"They need role models. They need people to hug them. To love them. To show them a different path," he said.

Juvenile in Justice
To learn more about this project, visit http://www.juvenile-in-justice.com/