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LA County Wants To Move From Locking Up Juveniles To A 'Care-First' Approach

Easlake Juvenile Court near downtown Los Angeles. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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In an effort to reconceive the county's juvenile justice system, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors committed Tuesday to moving forward with a sweeping plan that aims to replace locked facilities with "a home-like setting."

The board unanimously passed a motion that calls for eventually ending the Probation Department's supervision of juveniles, passing control to a new Department of Youth Development.

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Instead of holding young offenders in the county's two juvenile halls and six probation camps, the board agreed to explore how it could place them in "more of a home-like setting in communities, still with public safety in mind," as Supervisor Sheila Kuehl described the plan at a Monday press briefing.

The board committed to transitioning to the "care-first" model by 2025, "pending resolution of the necessary legal, budgetary and legislative issues."

While the number of juveniles in detention has dropped considerably over the years, L.A. County currently holds some 500 young people in its locked facilities.

The motion, co-authored by Kuehl and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, was based on an October report from the board-established Youth Justice Work Group. Its report recommends establishing Safe and Secure Healing Centers: "small, community-based therapeutic housing, with a range of security, to serve as alternatives to juvenile halls and camps."

Placing youth in the Healing Centers would keep them close to their community, instead of being shipped to a facility in another city or county. They would then retain access to their local school and support system.

Various reforms have reduced the population of incarcerated young people; state data shows the average daily population in L.A. County has steadily fallen since 2003, when it was more than 3,700. But that has "led to increasing racial disproportionality [and] increasing disproportionate burden of the justice system on Black and Brown young people," said Taylor Schooley, a senior researcher at the County's Office of Diversion & Reentry.

Young people of color are "significantly" overrepresented in L.A. County's justice system, according to the Youth Justice Work Group report. "Black youth are nearly 15 times as likely as white youth to be referred to Probation," it says, with Latino youth more than three times as likely as white youth to be referred.

The current juvenile detention system "did not protect [youthful offenders], it did not rehabilitate them, it did not value them -- at such a massive cost to the county and society," said Milinda Kakani, a senior policy associate with Children's Defense Fund-California who spent the last two years representing youth in L.A.'s juvenile justice system.

In 2018, the average annual cost in California to incarcerate a child in a county juvenile hall was $285,700, according to a report from the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and the Youth Law Center.

Former juvenile detainee Kent Mendoza told Monday's briefing that the time and money spent to incarcerate him was wasted.

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"Instead of being provided with a mentor that could support and guide me, I was pepper sprayed or put in solitary confinement," said Mendoza, who is now manager of advocacy and community organizing at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

"Instead of learning about life -- how to be professional and about the things I should expect once I was released into the free world -- I was released with a criminal record and labeled a gang member," he said.

Isaac Bryan, co-chair of the Reimagine L.A. Coalition, also backed the board motion. The coalition was behind Measure J, the recently-passed initiative that requires the county to set aside 10% of its unrestricted revenue each year to housing, youth development, mental health care and criminal justice diversion programs.

"There may be a need for even more resources, which is why we allocated youth development as one of the major categories that Measure J funding can go towards," Bryan said.

To accommodate probation officers' concerns about their jobs, Kuehl noted that the motion includes an order to explore how to transition workers currently in the probation officers union to roles at the Department of Youth Development.

The motion sets an objective of making an initial investment of $75 million in the Department of Youth Development in the fiscal year that begins next July.