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Preventing Juvenile Detention With A Blank Canvas And A Can Of Spray Paint

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The Graffiti Education and Mural Arts program in San Diego aims to keep kids off the streets — and maybe even make art like this, an example of the famous chicano artists murals found on a series of freeway overpasses, someday.

Victoria Borja started doing illegal graffiti in middle school.

"It's all on the risk. You know you might get in trouble and just the thought of that makes it even more fun," Borja says.

She loved the thrill of putting her work in front of an audience.

"It's not just for yourself, but for other people to know how you're expressing yourself, it's like your own art gallery but everyone can see it and it's for free," she says.

She was never caught vandalizing property, but she did end up at a correctional school.

After taking a class about graffiti arts, Borja says she's stopped illegal tagging.

The Graffiti Education and Mural Arts program is one of the most recent efforts by the county's juvenile justice system to keep potential delinquents out of trouble.

These recent efforts appear to be working — there are empty beds in San Diego county's juvenile detention center and the number of kids in juvenile hall there is down nearly half from just six years ago.

The prospective site for the program's new art park is below a freeway overpass near a high-end San Diego fashion mall.

The walls supporting Highway 163 in this spot are already coated with a colorful mash of stylized letters and names.

After the weeds and tall grass are cleared out, students will have a safe — and legal — place to use their spray paint.

"I like to tell kids to think outside the box," Jose Venegas, a graffiti arts teacher, says as he sets up his concrete canvas.

This tagger turned art teacher now uses his experience to connect with kids and move them away from vandalism.

"When I was at my prime doing freeway spots and what not I got involved with the graffiti program so that kind of derailed my criminal career," Venegas says.

Linda Sheridan, a former studio artist with three decades of experience managing art projects, says that graffiti art is incredibly expressive.

A few years ago one of her murals was defaced with graffiti, but she saw the artistic potential in the vandalism.

"It's almost like nobody recognizes that these youth have voices, so they're screaming it at us," Sheridan says.

Sheridan's program is part of the effort to lower youth detention rates but Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins says there's not one solution.

Arrest rates have dropped nation-wide, and Jenkins says diversion and prevention programs are important to keep kids out of juvenile hall.

"A juvenile justice system should only be locking up and serving those kids who are at the highest risk of harming the community and in the greatest need of intervention services," he says.

Jenkins says minors in the justice system are treated as unique cases. Probation officers look at a kid's family situation and their friends they spend time with.

From there, officers try to figure out if a diversion program is a better option than juvenile hall.

With the savings from reduced detention rates the county is investing in mental health screenings and diversion programs to make sure the kids locked up are the ones who are most likely to do something dangerous.

As a graduate of the graffiti arts program, 15-year-old Victoria Borja says she's looking to the future with big plans.

"It's about understanding that maybe there's other places you can take this art potential that you have, maybe off the streets. Looking into it and maybe one day having your own art gallery. It gives you motivation that it's possible," she says.

When kids like Borja cry out in self expression, sometimes the best way to help is to give them a blank canvas.

Copyright 2015 KPBS-FM. To see more, visit KPBS-FM.

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