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L.A. County Will Explore Possibility of Separating Youth from Probation

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors decided to move forward with exploring a new “care-first” direction for its juvenile justice system by moving it out of the county’s Probation Department and placing it under the aegis of a different county department.

motion authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl calls for the county to convene members of youth-serving departments in the Youth Justice Work Group, which would be charged with offering a recommendation on the best place in the county for youth offenders, either in an existing or newly created county department.

“Using a law enforcement model for juvenile justice not just in this county but in many counties, is beginning to be questioned … I certainly question it,” said Kuehl. “It’s not about whether probation is doing the job it was meant to do, it’s about whether probation is the department meant to do that job.”

There is a question about whether the county could mirror the reorganization of the state’s juvenile justice system, which is now housed in California’s health agency; the motion calls for creating a “rehabilitative, health-focused and care-first system.” Many organizations like the Youth Justice Coalition have also pressed for the creation of a new agency that would be focused around coordinating county investments in youth development programming and alternatives to incarceration. Ridley-Thomas said the process of looking for a new home for youth involved in the juvenile justice system is not yet determined.

“This is wide open in that regard,” he said. “If we were to adopt this, we would find ourselves moving more concisely with the rhetoric, the language we’ve been using in terms of a care-first model.”

After a recent visit to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she hopes the pace of change is fast.

“They’re coming out [of juvenile incarceration] more broken, if that’s possible, than when they when in,” Barger said. “It has to do with lack of staffing, lack of apathy, but overall there’s no question we have to do a better job. If we don’t do something, they will end up in jails and prisons.”

The Probation Department currently oversees about 800 youth detained at its camps and halls, with 5,200 more under community supervision. Over the past year, the Division of Youth Diversion and Development, housed in the county’s Office of Diversion and Re-entry, has begun to develop a coordinated system of pretrial diversion that would connect county youth to community-based services instead of arrest or citation.

Patricia Soung of the Children’s Defense Fund endorsed a shift away from probation oversight of youth involved with the justice system, describing probation officers as serving “a compromised and confused mission.”

“Many of their duties are not only essentially functions of police, prosecutors and sheriffs but they are also called on to be counselors, social workers, mentors and even grantmakers,” Soung said. “All of this with none of the constitutional and other legal protections afforded young people in their interactions with law enforcement without the complete training of social workers and other types of youth experts required to effectively support young people in their healing and whole development.”

Jonathan Byrd, a 28-year probation veteran and chief steward of a union representing probation officers, disagreed strongly with the plan and said that law enforcement is central to the task of working with vulnerable young people with many needs.

“To put another agency above probation — we’re not trying to minimize what mental health does or what health services does — but probation should be the lead because the law enforcement portion is the portion that makes the environment controlled so that they can receive other services,” Byrd said.

Several young people who had been involved with the county’s juvenile justice system testified on Tuesday about their experiences. Cory Pepper of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition said that his first contact with the juvenile justice system was at age 8, followed by stints in juvenile hall and ended at age 16 with an arrest and a stint in the state’s adult prison system.

“The justice system never helped; they didn’t offer any type of rehabilitation, any type of getting to understand why I was the way I was … There was no hope, there was no help,” Pepper said. “All I’m asking is that we break that cycle. I can’t be the only one to break the cycle within me; you guys have to break the cycle within the community. By passing this you’re going to break that cycle.”

Jeremy Loudenback
The Chronicle of Social Change

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