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This Malibu Camp Wants Juvenile Justice To Be More Like Rehab Than Prison

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The campus of Camp Kilpatrick is seen in a screenshot from a promotional video posted to a county social media account. (Photo courtesy of L.A. County)
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Since last year, L.A. County's Probation Department has taken an innovative approach to juvenile justice at Camp Kilpatrick, a detention facility nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains between Westlake Village and Malibu.

Instead of a prison-like atmosphere, it's focusing on rehabilitation to get the young people back into society and less likely to reoffend. Known as the L.A. model, the initiative is being watched closely. If it's successful, other local juvenile detention camps may adopt it.

But there could be signs of trouble. Jacqueline Caster, one of the Probation Commissioners who oversees the system, paid a visit to the camp over the summer and found the model wasn't going as well as she'd hoped.

On Thursday, she presented her report to the commission, which tasked the Probation Department with correcting the perceived shortfalls.

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WHAT'S SO DIFFERENT ABOUT THE L.A. MODEL?

Well, let's back up.

About 10 years ago, an advisory committee from different organizations got on a plane and traveled to Kansas City, where they were using what they call the Missouri Approach. Since it started in the '70s, it's been focused on small, family-like facilities and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

And it's worked. About 1 in 15 kids there are brought back into state custody. In California, it's 1 in 3.

THE VISION BECOMES REALITY...

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So local officials decided to try out the Missouri Model in Los Angeles -- hence the name, the L.A. Model.

The first camp to be transformed was Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu.

Big dorms have been replaced by small cottages, jail-reminiscent uniforms have been traded in for the kids' own clothes. The facility even offers programs in the arts.

The kids are housed in groups of eight to 12, and rehabilitation is built around group therapy. They focus on communicating, managing anger and addressing issues that led to their arrest.

The department even changed the facility's name to "Campus Kilpatrick," although if Thursday's meeting is any indication, the name didn't take hold.

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The campus of Camp Kilpatrick is seen in a screenshot from a promotional video posted to a county social media account. (Photo courtesy of L.A. County)

...SORT OF.

Commissioner Jacqueline Caster says that's not the only change that hasn't stuck.

"Groups aren't meeting consistently, they don't have consistent group leaders, and it's not effective," she said.

Caster's report claims that when kids aren't in school, they're often sitting around with nothing to do. She said the small groups are bigger than promised, and the 56-hour shifts for group leaders keep kids from having a reliable, consistent relationship with the people in charge of their improvement.

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She also said kids with mental health issues will disrupt the progress of group sessions. But kids aren't likely to report that kind of thing, because the lack of privacy in calling in or filling out grievances keeps them from communicating the problems they see.

And her biggest concern? There's no data saying how it's going so far.

"One big problem is that they had promised there would be data collection from the very beginning," she said. "And that has not happened."

HOW THE DEPARTMENT IS RESPONDING

At the meeting, the department outlined what it was doing to make improvements. It's opening a third cottage to probationers, signing a contract with a data collection company, and moving kids who need special attention to camps better designed to meet their needs.

Changing the 56-hour shift is a challenge since it's bound by labor contracts, and for staff, driving out to Malibu more frequently would be difficult. But it's under discussion.

SO WHAT'S NEXT?

The commission didn't make any binding decisions or require specific action. The meeting was all about saying why they're not happy and what they think they should change.

So what happens? Caster said we'll see.

"The proof is in the pudding, so we'll just have to see what happens," she said. "The next checkpoint is to see how many of the matters brought up today are addressed in the next month or so."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Jacqueline Caster's last name as Carter. LAist regrets the error. In addition, a previous version of this story incorrectly said the camp was building a third cottage. The structure already exists but it had not yet been occupied.

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