The recent election of District Attorney George Gascón presents an immediate opportunity for the County of Los Angeles to mitigate the consequences of a juvenile justice system handcuffed by an adult-driven penal code. Although the rehabilitative spirit of the juvenile system is delineated within the text of the state Welfare and Institutions Code , the reality is that the text and punitive nature of the penal code undermines that and negatively impacts the juvenile population in ways that most people don’t consider. Consequently, all youth are forced through a juvenile court system that mirrors the adult experience.
Most discussions related to the juvenile justice system focus on the role probation exerts, especially when it concerns short-term detention, and the long-term, out-of-home custody of youth. Yet, probation’s footprint is the easiest to reduce because it is influenced by the remaining entities that play significant roles in the system, most notably, the Board of Supervisors and the district attorney’s office.
The most significant point of contact occurs when a youth encounters law enforcement. At this point, the arresting officer utilizes the penal code to determine the course of action. If the underlying allegation meets the legal description for an offense that requires immediate detention, the youth is booked as such and transported to probation for a mandatory stay of up to 72 hours. Too often, this results in the unnecessary detention of youth who demonstrate behavior that is delinquent and only criminal in that the strict adherence of the letter of the law forces the booking for the serious offense.
For example, say a 14-year-old enters a local retail store for the purpose of taking a pair of shoes (petty theft). As the youth exits the store, he pushes the security guard who attempts to make contact. At this point, the allegation is booked as a robbery and the youth is transported for detention. These incidents are commonly referred to as “wobblers.” Clearly, the youth demonstrated poor judgment, but did not demonstrate any level of sophistication or that he was a continued threat to himself or the community.
Ironically, as an adult, an offender is allowed to post bail and remain in the community even if a weapon is used. Most officers understand this and are capable of determining the difference between delinquency and criminal sophistication. But they are not in a position to exert such discretion. It is understood that discretion is the pathway to prejudice, but in this case it is a risk worth taking because it favors the youth and aligns with the spirit of the Welfare Institution Code.
This is where District Attorney Gascón can change the game. By establishing a clearance protocol, officers would be able to contact his agency and receive authority to book on the lesser offense, and release a youth prior to transporting to the station for booking if they are able to contact a parent and determine identity. In doing so, the normalization of the arrest is not advanced; a youth is spared the experience of riding in a squad car while handcuffed, booked, finger-printed and housed in a police station while awaiting transportation to a juvenile detention facility.
Such a protocol does not require legislation. Gascón’s office would simply work hand in hand with law enforcement to provide training in determining which incidents meet the criteria for immediate release.
In order to support such a transformative advancement, Gascón would also have to realign the current structure of his agency. As it stands, his deputies transfer in and out of the juvenile assignments and mainly work within the adult courts during their careers. This amplifies the mirroring of the adult system within the juvenile courts because a more appropriate tone is not established. Allowing for deputies to choose a path that encourages remaining in the juvenile division for long periods establishes norms that are more conducive to promoting the spirit of the Welfare Institution Code.
In 2006, probation radically revamped its detention intake process and virtually eliminated the unnecessary intake of youth where detention was not mandated. The detention population at the time was hovering at 1,800. This did not require any legal maneuvering or legislation; Probation simply started abiding by the spirit of the Welfare Institution Code and teamed with the DA’s office to provide training to local law enforcement agencies. Today, the Los Angeles County detention population in juvenile halls is about 380. By taking a look at the juvenile booking process and revamping his juvenile division, Gascón can halve the detention population and provide local community based organizations the first opportunity to address the needs of delinquent youth.