We call ourselves million-dollar youth, because Los Angeles County spent at least that much on arresting, prosecuting, detaining and supervising us. A million dollars is a lot of money. And we think we’re worth that, but taxpayers didn’t get their money’s worth.
As teenagers, we struggled with poverty and unstable circumstances. We felt like outcasts and went searching for our identities — like all young people — and we made some bad choices. The lesson we learned about being in the juvenile justice system was clear, though: It’s not a place to send young people to prepare them for success. It dehumanizes and tends to groom your mindset toward failure. Just being on probation sent the message to our teachers and peers, and even our own families, that we were bad, troubled kids.
It’s encouraging that state leaders and those in charge of the juvenile justice system are coming around to this conclusion as well. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared his commitment to “ending the juvenile justice system as we know it once and for all.” The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has repeatedly called for the juvenile justice system to prioritize prevention rather than punishment. Even the heads of the L.A. County Probation Department said “the time has come to close down youth prisons, once and for all.”
Eventually both of us were connected to community-based programs while incarcerated. Through the programs, we learned to rethink ourselves and our futures — how we wanted to finish school, attend college, get jobs, become artists — and we formed meaningful connections with mentors with whom we still keep in touch. It was one of the few times either of us had been seriously asked what we needed or wanted.
It’s because of experiences like ours that we care about how the state and L.A. County spend money on juvenile justice. Recently, the Board of Supervisors approved funds from the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act, a state stream of funding created in 2000 to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system, to primarily go to community-based programs like the ones we participated in. For nearly 20 years, the largest portion of the annual $30 million that L.A. receives has gone directly to the Probation Department to supervise youth, including primarily black and Latino youth who are referred for “voluntary probation supervision” on school campuses for things like bad grades, truancy and “lack of motivation.”
Due to advocacy by community leaders, the Probation Department eliminated voluntary probation last year. That change led to a decision to shift over $7 million of Probation’s JJCPA funding to effective community-based prevention and intervention programs instead.
Reinvesting justice dollars into youth development is critical. While significant for the community, the $7 million shift is actually just half a percent of the department’s $1.4 billion annual budget. If county leaders are serious about a prevention-based system, they will need to move even more money from probation’s massive budget to help young people. In 2018, it cost as much as $400,000 a year to incarcerate a young person in L.A. County, because the locked facilities are now more than half-empty yet cost just as much to keep open.
Deputy Chief Sheila Mitchell of the Juvenile Division of the L.A. County Probation Department said she wants to work herself out of a job. That means making the department the smallest it can be and investing instead in other agencies better equipped to support youth, understand trauma, reduce recidivism and create opportunity. We and all youth are worth a better million dollars and more.
Kent Mendoza is a policy coordinator at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Redin Cubas is a youth leader at the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network.