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Stop the Spread in Juvenile Detention Facilities

Jeremy Loudenback: The Probation Department would receive nearly $399 million over the next fiscal year for its Juvenile Institutions Services Division.
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Shocking Sticker Price for Locking Up Youth in L.A. County: Calls Grow for Cheaper, More Humane Alternatives

[dc]A[/dc]s the number of youth locked up in Los Angeles County’s detention facilities plunged to a historic low during the pandemic, costs have soared, renewing calls to strip funding from the Probation Department and shutter increasingly expensive juvenile halls and camps.

According to a review by The Imprint of county documents and current population numbers, the annual incarceration cost for one teenager in Los Angeles has reached roughly $770,000 – an amount that is triple the four-year expense of a bachelor’s degree at the pricey University of Southern California.

With county supervisors finalizing a revised budget next week, youth and their advocates called the cost projection a tragic waste of public funds that should be reconsidered.

“To cost that much, it doesn’t seem real,” said Mainor Xuncax, a 19-year-old activist with the advocacy group Los Angeles Youth Uprising. Xuncax, who was detained at juvenile camps in recent years, said the funds could be much better spent by community organizations working to improve outcomes for young adults who have gone through the juvenile justice system. 

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Mainor Xuncax. Photo courtesy of Arts for Healing and Justice Network

“I think about all the other things we could do with that money instead of locking kids up,” he said, “like housing and jobs.”

The ballooning per-person cost of incarceration is primarily the result of declining numbers of youth held in juvenile halls and camps overseen by the Los Angeles County Probation Department, where spending on staff and facilities has remained mostly consistent. In February, the county’s two juvenile halls held an average of 539 youth each day, with 293 young people held in six locked facilities known as juvenile detention camps, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

The Probation Department would receive nearly $399 million over the next fiscal year for its Juvenile Institutions Services Division.

Young people ages 12 to 17 are held in juvenile halls after being arrested or for violating their terms of probation. Youth convicted of offenses in juvenile delinquency court serve sentences that are typically between five and nine months.

After the pandemic struck in March and coronavirus cases tore through adult prisons, local officials came under increasing pressure from activists and families of detained young people to stop the spread in juvenile detention facilities. They called for young people to be freed under alternative forms of supervision whenever possible – including those locked up for non-serious offenses, teens near the end of their sentences and young people in fragile health. In April, a parade of more than 100 vehicles circled downtown Los Angeles’ criminal justice nerve center in a slow-moving, pandemic-safe form of protest, blasting cumbia from car speakers and chanting “detention is deadly!” and “care not cages!” 

That same month, as infections grew among detained youth and juvenile probation staff, an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge was filed with the state Supreme Court to expedite releases. 

Meanwhile, with stay-at-home orders in place, fewer Los Angeles County youth were being arrested, and juvenile delinquency courts granted some young people early releases. 

In total, juvenile incarceration in the county has declined by 38% since February. On Wednesday, there were 312 youth in two juvenile halls and 206 in six detention camps.

According to a 2015 report from the Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller, it cost nearly $220,000 a year to lock up 1,618 youth in 2013 and 2014. The Imprint’s analysis of the county’s 2020-21 budget reveals that cost appears to have more than tripled in just five years.

The Probation Department declined to comment on the rising cost of juvenile incarceration, but a spokesperson said a presentation on the costs is being prepared for a county commission meeting in the coming weeks. 

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The exorbitant cost of juvenile detention is not unique to Los Angeles. According to ongoing reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle, the tally for a year in that county’s juvenile hall could reach as high as $2 million a year. Like San Francisco, several Bay Area counties have seen youth incarceration plummet by more than 50% during the pandemic.

The head of the trade group representing probation leaders in the state said the drop in youth arrests and incarceration is essentially an interruption of normal trends and cannot be counted on to last.

Brian Richert, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California and the head of El Dorado County’s probation system, said the pandemic has presented “an unusual and unnatural set of conditions” that have “artificially repressed” the number of youth who enter the system. In the coming months, he said he expected the number of youth booked for offenses and incarcerated to rebound, though probably not to pre-COVID-19 levels.

“As we return to more normal times – whatever normal means in the current environment – you’re going to see a different situation, a higher number in institutions and a lower cost per child,” Richert said.

In contrast, Los Angeles County officials appear eager to prevent a return to pre-pandemic numbers. On June 9, the Board of Supervisors called on the Probation Department and other agencies to come up with strategies for maintaining the low number of detained youth. 

At a county meeting earlier this month to discuss the results of that effort, Felicia Cotton, deputy director of the Probation Department, said before the pandemic 60% of local youth were detained because of bench warrants issued for a youth’s failure to appear in court or to follow court orders.

Cotton said these “mandatory detentions” are now being avoided through a collaboration between probation and the courts that has created an alternative to incarceration by using “family engagement teams” to help youth engage with the court process.

Youth advocates want county supervisors to take more lasting measures. As they consider revisions to the $34.9 billion county budget passed in June, advocates are urging them to redirect probation funds now used for locking kids up to social services and youth development programs instead. 

Under revised budget proposals being voted on Tuesday, the Probation Department would receive nearly $399 million over the next fiscal year for its Juvenile Institutions Services Division, which oversees young people in camps and halls. Even after the Board of Supervisors made reductions to the probation department’s budget in June, the number still represents a $1.3 million increase over last year, during a time when county coffers are restrained by the recession, and the number of in-custody youth has plunged.

About 80% of the costs for the county’s juvenile institutions are related to salaries, budget documents show. The department employs roughly 2,200 probation officers and staff who work with detained youth. As a result of the drop in the number of youth held at camps and halls, there are now about 4.4 probation staff per youth, up from fewer than three staff per youth during the last year.

In another budget item, the county is also scheduled to spendnearly $10 million to renovate two juvenile camps that are currently shuttered, including Camp Scott, a detention facility for girls and teenagers in Santa Clarita that was closed in May after its population dwindled to just 10.

The spending will be a focus of protests taking place on Saturday, when Xuncax and others from Los Angeles Youth Uprising plan to protest at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights. They are calling for the county to close down its juvenile halls and camps and shift the money spent on the costly facilities to what they call more effective and humane approaches that include diversion programs and community supervision.

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“We shouldn’t be investing in institutions we’re moving away from,” said Nicole Brown of the Urban Peace Institute. “It’s impossible to justify such a tremendous amount of money that is really not meeting the needs of our community.”

Jeremy Loudenbach
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.