Plan to Transform L.A. County’s Youth Justice System Hits a Snag
Five months after Los Angeles embraced a sweeping plan to reform its juvenile justice system, the county’s chief executive officer announced funding would not be included in her proposed budget for next year, angering many youth advocates.
“I was shocked, but not completely surprised,” said Lupita Carballo, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. “It’s ridiculous – the county already has all the money it needs to get this started.”
In November, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the “Youth Justice Reimagined” plan, a radical vision that would move hundreds of juvenile offenders out of detention camps and halls overseen by probation officials. A new agency would instead coordinate therapeutic care through “safe and secure healing centers” and community-based organizations.
As part of that plan, the $75 million Department of Youth Development was to be created in July, part of the county’s “care first” initiative that has set aside millions of dollars for alternatives to incarceration.
The number of youth incarcerated in the county dropped to 800 before the start of the pandemic – a 33% decline over the past five years.
But last week, Los Angeles County CEO Fesia Davenport announced at a news briefing that the new department would not be funded undera leaner budget recommended by her office. With the county trying to make up a $735 million shortfall in sales tax revenue, she said funding the new agency would be “premature” and that more work was needed, according to an April 19 Los Angeles Times report.
In response, Jesus Ruiz, a public information officer with the CEO’s office, said on Monday the county has no plans to halt the county’s ambitious youth justice plans. Instead, he noted that officials are still “conducting analysis and other foundational work” related to fiscal, legislative and labor issues. A report could be ready as soon as next month, he said.
“Once the analysis is complete, we will be in a better position to evaluate a possible timeline for implementation,” Ruiz wrote in an email to The Imprint.
But for advocates like Carballo, the delay has cast doubt on a much-heralded reform prompted by more than a decade of work to shift the county away from a reliance on incarceration in favor of jobs, arts programming and restorative justice.
Last year, a group of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and youth advocates met for nine months to reimagine a more therapeutic vision of the county’s juvenile justice system, and reported back to supervisors with the far-reaching plan that called for the gradual closure of detention camps and halls and an investment in community-based teams that would steer young people away from incarceration.
That plan was unanimously endorsed by the supervisors in November. “The county must resist a narrative about these young people that does not leave space for hope and healing, and insist on a structure that promotes positive youth development and rehabilitation at all costs,” a motion by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas stated at the time.
The plan was expected to unfold over at least five years, with the Probation Department gradually winding down its oversight of juvenile offenders while the new Department of Youth Development expanded its capacity. The $75 million investment was scheduled to be the first step in staffing the new department and expanding juvenile diversion programs.
Milinda Kakani, a senior policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund-California, said she objected to the county’s top executive slowing down the plan.
“The fact that the investment was characterized as premature is such a harmful narrative,” she said, “and so offensive and dismissive to the folks that have spent decades showing how the system has caused so much harm to young people.”
Critics of the current system say while the Youth Justice Reimagined reforms have been denied funding, the Probation Department’s budget remains bloated, continuing to grow in recent years while the number of young people detained in juvenile halls and camps have dramatically shrunk.
The number of youth incarcerated in the county dropped to 800 before the start of the pandemic – a 33% decline over the past five years. In the past year, the number dwindled even further. On Sunday, there were 270 youth held in two juvenile halls and 140 detained at six camps.
Next year’s recommended budget for the Probation Department – which must be finalized before the start of the fiscal year in July – calls for the agency to receive $408 million to oversee juvenile detention facilities, a $9.7 million increase from last year.
Some of the additional funding has been allocated to cover costs associated with a settlement with the California Department of Justice over conditions at the county’s camps and halls as well as expenses related to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
But a December Auditor-Controller report found a large chunk of probation’s budget is tied up in costly labor issues. About 17% of budgeted positions in L.A.’s juvenile detention facilities were frozen or vacant. And another 20% of those staff have been on continuous leave for more than six months.
“When they talk about creating a better future for L.A. County,” Carballo said of local officials, “I don’t think this is how you do it.”