By the year 2000, Judge John Phillips had long since lost count of the number of minors he had sent through the California penitentiary system for crimes committed during a violent, unguided, and hopeless adolescence.
"You send these young people to prison, and they learn to become harder criminals," he said once.
In 2003, he set out to find a better way—to get kids in an environment of support where they could pass through these difficult years with a hand on their shoulder. Phillips started Rancho Cielo at the base of a hill in the town of Salinas, utilizing an old juvenile detention center ironically, and with a board made up mostly of county supervisors, judges, and law enforcement leaders.
Rancho Cielo is a vocational training facility, culinary academy, and private school that only works with at-risk youth or youth living below the poverty line of $19,000 a year for a family of four.
At first, the organization running it would only take in adolescent offenders, but as the 21st century marched on, Salinas took several turns for the worse, and in 2015 saw more underage murders than anywhere else in the nation.