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Weighing a Transformative Model for Youth Justice

Last yearLos Angeles County supervisors called on a panel of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and youth advocates to reimagine a juvenile justice system and report back. 

Now, the results are in, and the 150-member group is calling for an entirely new approach: Instead of surveillance and incarceration, teams of counselors, mediators and community members would help respond to crises and guide youth who commit crimes toward restorative justice and job opportunities.

Under the plan expected to be heard by the Board of Supervisors in the next month, the county’s two remaining juvenile halls and its six detention camps would be shut down, with most young people instead housed in “Safe and Secure Healing Centers.” Only those found to have committed the most serious and violent offenses would be held in locked facilities, but they would be reconstructed with a less prison-like and more therapeutic design.

As a result, the juvenile probation department would end its troubled tenure overseeing thousands of young people, replaced by a system driven by a “care first, jail last” philosophy local leaders have said they are committed to enacting.

At an initial cost of $75 million, a new youth development department would be charged with diverting many more youth out of the justice system altogether and would oversee community-led “Youth Engagement and Support” teams to provide crisis response and community supervision. 

Should the plan proceed, the jobs ofmore than 3,400 probation employees who now oversee roughly 530 young people ages 12 to 17 in the county’s juvenile detention facilities and another 4,600 who live at home under department supervision could be at risk. 

“This is way overdue,” said Kent Mendoza, policy manager for the advocacy group the Anti-Recidivism Coalition who contributed to the county report. “At the end of the day, when you look at data, when you look at recidivism, probation hasn’t done its job.”

Mendoza said he was further damaged, and not helped, by his experiences as a juvenile offender — beginning with his first arrest and incarceration at a detention camp at age 13 and culminating in a five-year stint in the state’s youth prison system. For too long, Mendoza said, Los Angeles County has invested in systems of punishment and control for young people, rather than services that might promote healing and accountability.

Created by the board in August 2019, the Youth Justice Work Group was tasked with determining the feasibility of moving young people out of the Probation Department over the past 10 months. The group was asked to consider whether a new department should be created, and whether oversight should be shifted to an existing local government body, such as the public health agency. The dozens of participants included young people and their advocates, public defenders, prosecutors, representatives of the juvenile court and Probation Department, as well as community service providers.

Supervisors sent them off with a directive more than a year ago that described the county’s reliance on juvenile halls and camps as “fundamentally flawed.” In the nation’s largest local justice system that rivals the size of entire states, elected officials called it “counterproductive” to continue to rely on an agency with “a law enforcement orientation.”

Still, not all are optimistic about what the working group is now bringing back to the board. Eduardo Mundo, an officer with the Los Angeles County Probation Department for 30 years before retiring in 2018, said the process was “hijacked” by advocates intent on getting rid of the juvenile probation department. As a member of the workgroup, Mundo said the feasibility of some of the plans in the report hasn’t been adequately discussed. 

He also said the county would be challenged to find enough youth engagement and support team members to cover a county that spreads across more than 4,000 square miles and includes 46 local law enforcement agencies.

Obtained by The Imprint in advance of this week’s release, the report – titled “Youth Justice Reimagined” –  notes that “despite well-intentioned incremental reforms,” the county has failed to “transform the culture and orientation” of the Probation Department away from punitive practices, even as the number of youth arrested in Los Angeles has cratered. And during that time, the department’s budget has continued to grow, although modestly.

“If the board were to approve this and move forward, they’re doing it blindly and without an understanding of the degree of seriousness of issues that are going to come with it,” Mundo said.

Racial injustice also remains persistent. Black youth are arrested in Los Angeles County at a rate 6.5 times that of white youth, and they are 26.5 times more likely to be locked up. Latino youth are 3.4 times as likely as their white peers to be referred to the Probation Department.

Six juvenile camps and one juvenile hall have closed in the county since 2017, but according to repeated warnings to the board from commissions and watchdog groups, those that remain open are still plagued by violence, deteriorating conditions and sometimes poor access to education and health care. 

“We are outraged that the current system takes vital resources from our communities and uses them to incarcerate us and trap us in a cycle of punishment and poverty,” wrote youth who contributed to the “Youth Justice Reimagined” report. 

For advocates like Kruti Parekh, the shift away from the Probation Department is necessary to improve public safety — a system that should no longer be linked to surveillance by probation officers and the threat of incarceration.

Parekh, who works with 17 youth-focused organizations as part of the Los Angeles Youth Uprising coalition, said that the department has long struggled to create “authentic” relationships with young people.

Under the proposed new system, the youth engagement and support teams would be on call at all times across the county and would roll out as first responders in crisis situations, including when youth have been arrested. In some cases, such teams would accompany police, while in less-violent situations like family dysfunction or school-based issues, the groups could appear in lieu of police, a proposed change that mirrors other reforms in the county. Earlier this week, Los Angeles city officialsannounced a pilot project that would replace police officers with unarmed crisis responders from the county’s Mental Health Department.

The youth engagement and support teams would include trained mediators, counselors, young people and families with justice system experience. The teams would attend to the young person being arrested and deliver them to a 24-hour youth care center, a model developed in San Francisco and Miami. 

Other engagement teams would help connect youth to services and help them through the legal process. Family and other community members would be counted on to provide accountability for young people by encouraging their participation in rehabilitative programs and services. The team would also work to involve both youth and crime victims in restorative justice programs.

The focus on building meaningful relationships in the community is just one way Parekh hopes a new system can be steered toward better outcomes, including lower recidivism rates and reducing the high rates of homelessness after young people are released from lockups.

“Shuffling them through the system just reinforces traumas and reinforces negative behaviors,” she said. “Ultimately that’s why they’re not getting the help they need.”

Advocates are also hopeful that the engagement teams can help boost Los Angeles County’s efforts to prevent more young people from entering the deeper end of the juvenile justice system. So far, more than $40 million has been spent on diversion efforts, but the results haven’t met expectations. At a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission, arrest data showed that just 30% of youth eligible for a community-based diversion program were actually referred to a provider, thereby avoiding arrest.

It’s clear the sweeping change envisioned would be complicated by labor issues that would result from defunding the county’s $555 million Probation Department. The county report calls for hiring more community members with lived experience of the justice system and avoiding current job descriptions — such as one seeking a prospective probation employee that “maintains institutional security and takes appropriate action to prevent escapes.” 

More than 3,400 staff members could be left without a job, although members of the workgroup said they are not calling for layoffs.

“Some probation officers will be able to see themselves in this new model,” said Patricia Soung, a longtime juvenile justice advocate who contributed to the report. But in building a different, health-focused culture in the new department, she said the county would need to transition other staff to the adult side of probation or to other county departments.

Moving juvenile justice systems away from a reliance on incarceration and toward community-based care is hardly a new idea, said Steven Teske, chief judge of the juvenile court of Clayton County, Georgia, and a longtime advocate for reducing youth incarceration. 

In the early 1970s, led by legendary juvenile justice pioneer Jerry Miller, Massachusetts closed many of that state’s youth prison facilities known as training schools in favor of small treatment-oriented residential facilities. Even after the reforms showed positive outcomes, Teske said much of it was abandoned by states and cities in the 1980s as a result of rising youth crime and a racialized war on drugs that resulted in higher rates of youth detention.

“Unfortunately, this type of politics — the political rhetoric around crime and punishment — has usually prevented this type of reimagining of juvenile justice from taking hold,” Teske said.

Los Angeles County supervisors have already undertaken some steps to close down jails and other detention facilities while promising to replace them with better access to mental health and substance use programs. In July, the board voted to shut down Men’s Central Jail, after abandoning plans last year to build another facility. And earlier this week, they announced plans to repurpose a shuttered juvenile hall in Downey as supportive housing for transitional-age youth.

Next week, the county will finish voting on Measure J, a charter amendment spurred by racial justice protests this summer. Supported by a majority of the left-leaning board, it would set aside 10% of locally generated unrestricted money in Los Angeles County’s budget for alternatives to incarceration — about $500 million a year that would go to youth development, mental health services and criminal justice diversion programs.

The youth justice plan is expected to come up for a vote by the Board of Supervisors over the next month, and given past statements from some board members, there are signs that the county may be willing to leap in a new direction.

Last August, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said if the county were to move away from the probation model, “we would find ourselves moving more consistently with the rhetoric, the language that we’ve used, in terms of a care-first model, and that seems to me to be most appropriate.”

The search for an alternative approach to youth justice also lines up with advocates who see this effort as part of a wider national discussion about addressing racial injustice in communities of color.

“At the end of the day, this is absolutely a project that is created around defunding one system and recapturing those dollars to fund something that is healthier and fairer,” Soung said.

Jeremy Loudenback
LA Progressive

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