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L.A. County's New Approach to Juvenile Justice

Jeremy Loudenback: Under the plan released a month ago, a new county department would be charged with providing therapeutic care to youthful offenders in their communities
New Approach to Juvenile Justice

Supportingradical changes to its juvenile justice system, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday endorsed a sweeping plan that would move hundreds of young people out of juvenile halls and detention camps run by the Probation Department.

Under the plan released a month ago, a new county department would be charged with providing therapeutic care to youthful offenders in their communities and in facilities that would be called “safe and secure healing centers.”

“Our current system is actually harming young people without any demonstrated benefits to their overall well-being or our community’s goal of public safety,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, in support of the plan at the virtual public meeting.

Under the plan released a month ago, a new county department would be charged with providing therapeutic care to youthful offenders in their communities

Kuehl said pervasive racial disparities in Los Angeles County and the damaging impact of incarceration on young people moved her to vote for a complete transformation of the youth justice system — not merely incremental change.

Kuehl’s views met unanimous approval from fellow supervisors in the massive and influential county, where sweeping reforms are sure to be watched by a nation reeling from national protests over abusive law enforcement practices and mass incarceration.

Following Tuesday’s vote, the board will now explore how to transfer $75 million in Probation Department funds to launch a new county Department of Youth Development. It will also research what statewide legislative and penal code changes might be required to transfer youth supervision from the Probation Department to therapeutic alternatives in the community over the next five years.

Co-authored by Supervisors Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, the motion endorsed the vision laid out in a recent report written by the 150 members of Youth Justice Work Group convened by supervisors in January. The group was sent to explore alternatives to what the board called the “fundamentally flawed” use of juvenile detention halls and camps to serve the county’s highest-needs youth. 

Released at the end of October, the Youth Justice Work Group’s report sketched out an ambitious plan that promised the closure of the county’s two juvenile halls and six juvenile detention camps, a set of mostly aging, jail-like facilities.

Ronaldo Villeda of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition participated in the Youth Justice Work Group this year. Photo courtesy of Villeda

Ronaldo Villeda of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition participated in the Youth Justice Work Group this year. Photo courtesy of Villeda

Members called for “youth engagement teams” that would fan out across the county in an effort to divert youth from arrest and direct them instead to community-driven restorative justice services, jobs and other supports offered by a network of youth centers.

That, say advocates, would provide a much better return on the more than $500 million the county currently spends to incarcerate about 500 youth in county detention facilities.

“The purpose of the new department will be not only to invest in these community organizations but also to prove that different is good,” said Mili Kakani, a senior policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund — California. “There’s nothing to justify that money in terms of outcomes, benefits or community safety.”

Reforms to the L.A. juvenile justice system — the nation’s largest — come amid other significant shifts in county crime and punishment. In a closely watched race for district attorney, this month county voters elected former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who has promised to divert scores of people from lockups. Local voters also approved Measure J, which will direct up to $500 million a year for community-based services in lieu of incarceration as well as preventive programs including youth development activities.

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Passage of the ballot measure could provide a needed infusion of cash for the juvenile justice overhaul now being envisioned — a system that would be responsible for the roughly 4,600 youth offenders under probation supervision in the community each year.

“There may be a need for even more resources,” said Isaac Bryan, co-chair of the Reimagine L.A. Coalition, at a Monday press briefing, “which is why we allocated youth development as one of the major categories that Measure J funding can go towards.” 

Kuehl and justice advocates said the new community investments will be critical in addressing devastating racial disparities in the county’s juvenile justice system. The county-commissioned working group found that Black youth are 6.5 times more likely to be arrested than white youth. Latino youth are almost twice as likely to be arrested as their white peers.

Ronaldo Villeda, a 23-year-old member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition who participated in the Youth Justice Work Group, said Tuesday that he was “completely beside himself” about a path forward that would take into account the experiences of young people like himself.

When he was 17, Villeda said he faced life in prison after a fight spun out of control, but ended up serving four years in an Orange County juvenile hall. Villeda said the memories of violence there, and the loneliness of living in a cramped 8-by-8-foot cell, still linger in painful flashbacks.

A therapist helped the former honor student restart his schooling while locked up, even after probation officers laughed off his educational aspirations. Now a Chapman University college student, Villeda said part of creating a youth justice system that works means abandoning punitive approaches and creating a space for healing and hope.

“I want to show the naysayers and the people that don’t believe in the possibility of rehabilitation that I am the living embodiment of investing in youth,” Villeda said.

Supervisors emphasized that the motion passed Tuesday represented only first steps. A county report due back in 60 days will determine how much the proposed transformation might be limited by the California Penal Code and the Welfare and Institutions Code. For example, the supervision of youth under the jurisdiction of juvenile delinquency courts in the community is currently limited to probation officers, according to government code

Despite pledges from the Board of Supervisors that none of the 3,400 Probation Department staff members would be laid off, Hans Liang, president of the union that represents those workers, said his members remain concerned about their jobs and the reforms proposed by advocates.

Kenzo Sohoue talks at a virtual press conference put on by the Los Angeles Youth Uprising on Tuesday. Photo: Screenshot

Kenzo Sohoue talks at a virtual press conference put on by the Los Angeles Youth Uprising on Tuesday. Photo: Screenshot

“Some of the outcomes that they’re seeking are very doable and don’t require the costly teardown and building of a new bureaucracy that taxpayers would have to cover,” Liang said in an interview. “A lot of what advocates are pushing for, we are doing already.”

But youth and advocates remain focused on creating a system that offers an alternative to the punitive approach of law enforcement.

Kenzo Sohoue, a member of the Los Angeles Youth Uprising coalition, said many youth overseen by the county’s Probation Department are often on their own and falter without access to a support system or basic resources like safe and secure housing. These youth, he said on Tuesday before the board meeting, are easily influenced by harsh messages they might get from some probation officers, like being told they are unlikely to succeed or that they will soon be back behind bars

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“We’re trying to give them a ladder so they can climb to the top,” Sohoue said.

Jeremy Loudenback
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.