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Ready or Not. Here They Come! Youth Reentry from Probation

Diane Lefer: As our Probation Department moves in the direction of reform, the good news is that the department recognizes the need for reentry services for kids coming out of the system--often traumatized, unable to read and write, set free on the mean streets in an abysmal job market while carrying the stigma of lockup.

Youth Reentry from Probation

father greg boyle

The world hasn't changed since Frederick Douglass said, It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Father Greg Boyle has taught us Nothing stops a bullet like a job. As our Probation Department moves in the direction of reform, the good news is that the department recognizes the need for reentry services for kids coming out of the system--often traumatized, unable to read and write, set free on the mean streets in an abysmal job market while carrying the stigma of lockup. The federal Department of Labor shares this recognition and granted the county $300,000. The bad news is that money is to be spent on "planning" rather than any direct services.

On Friday, professionals who work with youth, local residents and other community stakeholders of Mark Ridley-Thomas's Second District met in Carson for a Reentry Summit--six hours of panels and discussion exploring what the community needs.

Existing maps already show the high density in the district of kids who are in the system. Existing statistics already show us disparities: Manhattan Beach, for example, has an unemployment rate of 4.4% while to the east, in the Florence-Firestone community, the rate in June reached 24.0%. We already know most kids being locked up are black or brown. We know that community colleges--where most black and brown students go for higher ed--is the least funded element in the entire State education system.

At the Summit, we heard about programs that have already proved they work. Raul Diaz, a case manager with Father Greg's Homeboy Industries explained that while they still offer services to anyone who walks in the door, Homeboy now tries to involve juveniles while they are still in probation camps. Kids in lockup and their families participate in a 90-day pre-release program and another 90 days post-release with intensive case management to be sure they have what they need whether it's tutoring for literacy or documents and support to get back into school or transportation to keep appointments.

That's great, except the organization is now hurting for funds, laying off staff and unable to hire young people in desperate need of a job. They can reach only a limited number of juveniles and so, as a young man named Carlos told me later, his own release wasn't quite so smooth: He was given an hour's notice to change his clothes, then "they open the door and leave you on the street. No shoelaces, no money, not even a bus token to get home." (Hey, I know $300,000 won't stretch far, but it could at least give each of the 200,000 kids who go through LA County probation each year a bus token.)

Jesus Escobar had a better experience. As he explained, he went from lockup to the Day Reporting Center--a new program of the Probation Department--where he learned the basics, such as how to fill out a job application. The best thing, he said was finding "all kinds of services under one roof. They even provided pants, shirts, neckties." Jesus found a job, enrolled in and succeeded at East LA College and has now transferred to USC, hoping his next step will be law school.

Kids who've been in trouble need caring advocates. We already know this. Erick Cerda of DCR told of the young man who was barred from becoming an EMT because of his prior conviction. The program managed to get his case reopened and the felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor. The young man was able to complete his training and today can be out there not just earning a living but saving lives. The DCR program works, but it's a pilot project accepting a limited number of participants, and only males.

YouthBuild, at least, has a larger scope. According to James Smith who directs the program in Watts, this nationwide program has a long admirable record since its start in Harlem in 1978. Today there are 15 YouthBuild sites in LA County about half of which operate their own charter schools. Multi-million dollar grants put them on track to reach as many as a thousand kids pre-release. Post-release, participants can be trained in construction.

"Get the training now," says Smith, "and when the economy gets better, get the jobs." YouthBuild prepares young people to earn full high school diplomas rather than the G.E.D. to move them more easily to higher education. "They get stipends," said Smith. "In the real world, it's called money," because when a post-release youth has some funds and a roof over his head, he's obviously more likely to stay out of trouble. Participants, he said, know they have to "pull their pants up and get their attitudes right because they're going to work."
Donvielle Holley of Quantum--which provides on-the-job work training, agreed. "I can teach you Microsoft Office skills but I can't teach you attitude." And Quantum, alas, can serve fewer than two dozen young people.

From Winston Peters we learned the Public Defenders office recognizes that when kids get into trouble with the law, they need more than ordinary legal representation. The office now has psychiatric social workers on staff to work with kids and their families as well as lawyers who specialize in getting kids back into school and getting kids with disabilities the special education services they need. Very impressive. But we already know the Public Defenders office only has enough funding to serve 50% of the indigent youth who are arrested.

Another example of inadequate funding and wrongheaded planning: According to Rev. Eugene Williams, AB 900 now in the legislature would pay to build a 500-bed corrections facility that could be expanded to 1,000 beds, but makes zero provision for services or programs inside the facility.

In the second panel of the day, Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition asked for a moment of silence for young people recently killed and for others facing life behind bars. Then she asked everyone to stand. She rattled over a list of documents and asked people to sit if they could not produce what was asked for: California drivers license or State ID, Social Security card, adult immunization record, TB test, recent utility bill, transcript from last school, and more. By the time she finished with the list of documents a child in LA County needs to get back into school, every adult in the room was seated. Not one of us could have re-enrolled. No child should be released from a juvenile facility without a school placement.

McGill once again laid out the proposals she's been making for years--recommendations that usually get her applause, even standing ovations, but little or no action.

  • Stop criminalizing kids for minor offenses such as truancy, curfew violations. Rethink drug offenses and recognize the difference between users and addicts. Right now, kids who smoke marijuana on the weekend can be ordered into expensive rehab or sentenced to Narcotics Anonymous meetings where they are surrounded with hardcore addicts. Juveniles who turn to sex work for survival should be helped, not criminalized. She advocated a restorative justice model rather than incarceration: Kids who are now sent to adult prison for graffiti would benefit more--as would the community--if they were sentenced to graffiti removal and to art programs.
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  • Collect, release, and analyze data that looks at the system by race and zip code. Why are kids in Palmdale being pushed into the system? What about racial or cultural profiling? Students at the YJC's Free LA High School, for example, are repeatedly accused of using fake bus passes. These legitimate bus passes, paid for by the school, are confiscated with the students then ending up in court instead of the classroom.
  • Correct the current situation in which charter school students now have no right to a hearing before suspension or expulsion.

Instead of high numbers of school police and probation officers on campuses, hire guidance counselors and gang intervention workers. Free LA High School stays peaceful in spite of enrolling students from 16 neighborhoods and five different tagging crews. YJC's 1% campaign, diverting criminal justice money to youth services, could put 500 salaried gang intervention workers on the street. Today, most interventionist risk their lives as volunteers or at minimum wage. So far this year alone, one was killed, two were left paralyzed as a consequence of their vital work.

"Ban the Box," said McGill, and she was not referring to Wal-Mart. With kids being routinely transferred into the adult criminal justice system, they leave lockup with criminal records. Even a McDonald's job application has a box to check if you've ever been convicted of a felony. Checking that box means excluding a young person from college financial aid, housing, and most employment. It means kids from probation fire camps who've risked their lives on the front lines fighting forest fires are banned from joining fire departments with good middle class union jobs after their release. Exclusionary policies mean until YJC intervened at the Mayor's Office even the Gang Reduction Youth Development summer program excluded kids on the unreliable gang database.

She urged a change in language. "Offender," "high-risk," "delinquent" are all labels that disempower and disrespect.

Myrna Brutti, director of the "Safe Schools--Healthy Students" program at LAUSD, was also concerned with erasing stigma. She frames the need for mental health services not as "there's something wrong with you," but rather let's address what's standing in the way of your being successful. (Winston Peters offered a conservative estimate that a third of all kids in Juvenile Hall suffer from some form of mental illness.) She acknowledged that until she took the job, she didn't even know LAUSD offered mental health services "so how was the community supposed to know?" (Let's consider that the lack of access to information may be entirely intentional. Once again, inadequate funding: Large numbers of students who clearly need help languish on waiting lists.)

"If you don't think racism creates mental health problems," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas during his luncheon address, "then you need to think again."

Clinical psychologist Heidi Rothman with the County Department of Mental Health stressed that family involvement in any reentry or treatment plan is critical but professionals have to do a better job of listening to what families need and want. And understanding when a mother says, "I don't want my child back," it often means a woman is scared her child won't succeed and that she lacks the resources to help. She needs a support system helping her if she is to help her child.

Dr. Cheryl Grills, who received her doctorate from UCLA as a clinical psychologist but also trained as a traditional African healer in Ghana, insisted true mental health is not merely the absence of symptoms. It exists in a context that includes access to decent housing, to transportation, to healthy foods. "Our children are overdiagnosed and overmedicated," she said. She challenged the buzzword of "evidence-based practice" which has evolved to favor a couple of treatment modalities--mostly traditional therapy. In communities so lacking in safety nets, she argued, a child's mere survival shows a capacity for resilience that should be built on instead of coming at the kid from an illness perspective. Employ cultural traits and practices that build on that resiliency. "Culture matters," she said. "It's in the room. Accept it, acknowledge it, incorporate it."

Like McGill, she favors a restorative justice model. Instead of treating kids as clients with pathologies, "give youth the role of valued members of the community." She wants to build "self-efficacy" instead of just talking about "self-esteem." Reach kids in libraries, in parks, she said, not just in a therapist's office. Adults--including the community's elders--have to provide a protective shield and minimize the trauma the kids experience every day. "Organize the parents," she said. "So it's not a single parent dealing with a probation officer or a principal. A group of 100 parents is going to go a lot further."

Adela Barajas didn't like the talk of mental health either. "What? You're going to take us out of prison and put us in a mental institution?" She provided a sobering perspective from her community in LAPD's Newton Division. "Our youth are being sent to prison and we're burying our loved ones."

Barajas has been on both sides of the pain. Her sister-in-law was murdered. Her brother served a ten-year prison term for drugs. His young daughter witnessed the killing of a godparent, the murder of a boy she knew, and the killing of a close friend. A month before her dad got out, she was arrested. She went into Juvenile Hall as a scared 13-year-old kid and came out a year later "hardcore." Maybe growing up in an environment like hers, you need something mentally "wrong" with you not to suffer from depression and/or PTSD while according to Barajas, communities most affected by homicide are largely overlooked when it comes to services.

Coordination of services and communication may improve soon in spite of what Judge Donna Groman noted: it's hard to accomplish anything given the LA bureaucracy. Myrna Brutti agreed the "right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing." But civil rights organization the Advancement Project has designed an internet data base envisioned by Sheriff Lee Baca that can provide quick service referrals to 18,000 resources based on zip code, police reporting district, or key word. The bad news is that given how thin resources are stretched, desperate families are still likely to get busy signals, waiting lists, more runaround while the zip code where Adela Barajas lives is only too likely to come up empty.

diane lefer

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.