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More Diversion, Fewer Detention Sentences for LA Juveniles

Diane Lefer: Whether dealing with youthful or adult offenders, Powers reiterated how important it is to start educational and rehabilitative programs to build learning into a daily routine when the person is still inside.

Tedi Snyder

Monday evening, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 260 into law, making it possible for prisoners who received extreme sentences as juveniles to have their sentences reviewed and perhaps reduced after serving ten years. The news brought happy tears to my eyes.

Three years ago, I was in the courtroom when Tedi Snyder was sentenced 32-years-to-life following an incident in which no one was killed and for which Tedi was never convicted of being the shooter. The crime occurred months after this 15-year-old child had himself been shot in the head and was then shot again.

Mitigating circumstances and Tedi's exemplary record in Juvie didn't count. The judge who heard the case seemed fair and concerned. In fact, with Tedi facing a possible 80-years-to-life, he got the least extreme sentence the judge could hand down, constrained by mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements that left little room for judicial discretion.

Immediately afterward, in the hallway, Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition promised Tedi's heartbroken father that the group would never give up on his son and would continue the fight to bring him home. Honestly, at that time I did not think there was any chance of success.

There are other potential game changers in the works for juvenile justice as I learned, also on the evening of September 16, when LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers spoke at his first Town Hall at the meeting of the Public Safety and Justice Committee of the Empowerment Congressin the offices of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Powers, who took up his post in December 2011, has already done what his predecessors failed to do: he has restored the role of Probation in juvenile arrest cases which now go first to his department instead of directly to the District Attorney's office which had a penchant for charging kids as adults and seeking stiff penalties regardless of the circumstances of the case. Probation now does an assessment to identify young people who can safely be diverted to programs outside the court system.

His department is creating juvenile day reporting centers to reduce the number of young people who have to be sent to camps or juvenile halls. Ninety-day commitments to camps? "More disruptive to them than good," he said, and as for juvenile halls, "You put a kid in an institution and that's something you can never erase from their brains." There are now several hundred fewer kids in camps and halls than when he took the job. "School-based probation officers and diversion programs are starting to take effect."

As for the camps themselves, which are still being monitored by the US Department of Justice due to historically abusive conditions, Powers insists he will fire staff members who abuse children or enter into inappropriate relationships with probationers. "We deserved to get our butts kicked," he acknowledged. "It was not a way to treat kids regardless of what they'd done."

One deputy addressed the meeting to speak up for his colleagues who take a beating in the media in spite of their dedicated work and commitment to the kids. "We don't need encouragement though it would be nice," he said "But a knock on the head? We don't need it!"

Indeed, Powers was very clear: While the media has rightly condemned the wrongdoers, what gets overlooked is that his department has 6,500 staff members "and 6,350 of them are great – the best you'll ever see."

Powers is working on school improvements in tandem with Arturo Delgado who assumed office (at about the same time Powers did) as Superintendent of LACOE (LA County Office of Education) which has responsibility for educating youth on probation. He wants to expand meaningful vocational training, such as the construction trades program introduced at Camp Challenger in Lancaster. Delgado has cut down on the use of substitute teachers, important because, as Powers said, "with kids, relationships are half the battle."

This past summer, two camps welcomed Freedom Schools and became pilots for introducing to juvenile facilities the innovative educational program created by Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. Powers said he was amazed to see teenagers standing up and participating enthusiastically instead of sitting around in the back of class. Asked if this meant he would expand the program to all probation facilities, he said instead of more summer programs, he'd like to incorporate some of the Freedom School's approach into the year-round educational system.

Young people from the Youth Justice Coalition along with program coordinator Kruti Parekh were in the house and not so easily convinced. Youth told of abusive conditions they'd experienced in lockup and pushed for details on whether community college courses and vocational certificate training would be offered. Parekh asked what percentage of youth actually gets to participate in vocational programs such as the one at Camp Challenger.

Powers didn't have figures to offer. He did say, "You're probably not going to see 100% come out with a vocational certificate. It's not appropriate for everyone." He wants the camps to specialize more. "Now you have a full spectrum at each location," he said, pointing out, for example, "Some kids need substance abuse treatment, some don't."

Jerry Powers

Jerry Powers

YJC wanted to know why youth of color are targeted by law enforcement and asked that statistics be kept. (Statistics on DMC - Disproportionate Minority Contact - are being compiled by the W. Haywood Burns Institute) Powers explained his department has no control over what stops and arrests are made by the police, but he hopes that having first look at cases and being able to divert kids away from the court system will reduce the disproportionate impact on youth of color.

Parekh asked if Powers would support the YJC's campaign that would allocate 1% of the county's law enforcement budget for intervention. But to Powers, intervention is Probation's mission: "Your premise is that Probation doesn't do any good." (But her premise is that funding for 25,000 youth jobs, 50 youth centers and 500 full-time community intervention/peacebuilders could also reach young people before contact with law enforcement.)

Powers, whose department is responsible for adult probationers as well as youth, encountered other skeptics upon his appointment. He ran into disagreements with the union through his intention to hire about 500 new staff members and look for specific skill sets instead of allowing current employees to move into newly created positions. There were concerns that a man who'd spent ten years as chief in small Stanislaus County wouldn't be up to managing the largest probation system in the country. But Powers, who has already lasted longer in the position than his immediate predecessors, also had extensive and valuable experience dealing with the legislature on justice issues.

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Seven years ago, with the state then, as now, under court order to address overcrowding, he helped negotiate a deal to cut arrests and recidivism by putting money into prevention: education, mental health and drug treatment. The legislature shot it down, telling him no action was needed as no way would the federal court order California to release prisoners. The lawmakers were wrong. Jerry Brown now proposes sending prisoners out-of-state and into private facilities while the Senate is finally embracing the prevention plan, hoping the court will extend the December 31 deadline by which time the prison population must be reduced. Given the state's failure to fully comply with the court order over the last 20 years, Powers thinks it unlikely the deadline will be extended. At best, he thinks, prevention must be a long term solution.

Prison overcrowding also presented Powers with one of his biggest challenges. When he arrived on the job in LA, AB 109 – "adult realignment" had sent 15,000 low level offenders from state prison to LA County jail and the probation department, rather than the department of corrections, was put in charge of their supervision. Again, contrary to media reports, "Not a single one of these prisoners was released a single day early." Yes, once they'd served their full terms, many reoffended. But "These are low level offenders and they are more likely to reoffend than murderers." Drug users, for example, who come home without any substance abuse treatment behind bars or in-patient treatment upon release, will typically go right back to drug use.

"I wish we'd had two years to prepare," Powers said. "Programs, treatment, beds, staffing in place. I started work in December about 60 days after this thing started. so we've been scrambling." Nothing was easy. Not only did he need to hire hundreds of new personnel, he had to find office space for them. Service providers that wanted to expand their programs to meet the new need ran into problems with neighbors who didn't want that sort of population nearby.

To help with community relationships, Powers is moving top level managers out of the Downey headquarters and into the communities being affected and served.

The outreach coordinator for one of those potential service providers – the youth development program of CRCD (Coalition for Responsible Community Development) – wanted to know how to develop a relationship with Probation.

"We tend to be standoffish," Powers admitted. "Many times we've seen individuals who have good intentions, but the worst thing we can do is hook a kid up with someone who fails them again, so there are hoops to go through." But solid organizations shouldn't be discouraged and he said he'd put her in touch with the right people to call.

A YJC member who was previously incarcerated at Camp Kilpatrick said, "The programs that helped me were by community members who weren't paid and had to drive up there."

ivan eland

Kruti Parekh

"Show us the money!" said a community worker.

It can be a vicious cycle. Unfunded or underfunded programs are more likely to be short lived or less than 100% reliable. The more a program relies on volunteers, the less likely it is to win contracts and establish itself on firmer ground. (A model might be Susan Burton's A New Way of Life Re-Entry project which provides services for formerly incarcerated women but has also begun to mentor and enter into partnership with smaller new providers.)

Whether dealing with youthful or adult offenders, Powers reiterated how important it is to start educational and rehabilitative programs to build learning into a daily routine when the person is still inside. Otherwise, "They just sit on their bunk, they get out, they hit the sunlight and the concrete and they're gone."

So what's next?

Certainly, Powers espouses a refreshing philosophy. He sees the value in restorative justice programs. (Pepperdine University will soon introduce a restorative justice program in Camp Gonzalez.) Powers believes probation operates with a different mindset than the parole department with their law enforcement orientation: his department seeks to "engage offenders and deal with their risks and their needs rather than tail 'em, nail 'em, jail 'em." He sees the mission of probation as helping individuals who've made mistakes go on to redeem themselves as persons and he asks the public to believe as he does, that his organization, too, can learn from past mistakes. He gives credit to the DOJ and the advocates and community organizations that held Probation's feet to the fire.

The question now is implementation.

Three years ago, Donald Blevins, the new (and short lived) Probation Chief thought his department had to be cleaned up before it could think about diverting juvenile cases away from adult court. And three years ago, when I wrote for LA Progressive about Tedi Snyder's case and others like it, I did not have much hope that Kim McGill's promise could be fulfilled. Though Tedi isn't coming home tomorrow, now I believe he will come home long before 32 years.

So there has been progress. Today, I feel optimism, but no certainty. A new way of justice appears to be a possibility, but there are no guarantees.

diane lefer

As the Town Hall drew to a close, Parekh asked, "Can we do this once a month in different supervisory districts?"

"Can we do this with staff?" asked a deputy.

"All 6500 of them?" asked Powers.

Diane Lefer

Wednesday, 18 September 2013