$100 Million Diversion Effort Aims to Keep California Youth Avoid Lock Up

Advocates in California are lobbying Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to set aside $100 million for an effort to steer young people away from involvement in the juvenile justice system across the state.

On Monday, advocates gathered in Sacramento to lobby in support of the Youth Reinvestment Fund, a new source of funding that would grant millions of dollars to fund local diversion programs across the state as well as set aside money to hire more social workers in public defender offices and for Native American youth.

State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer addresses the media at a press conference on Monday. Credit: Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer’s office.

California State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D) introduced the budget request last month, marking the second year in a row he will ask Gov. Brown to provide an alternative to incarceration for young people at-risk of entering the state’s county-run juvenile justice system.

Though last year’s version foundered, he’s hoping Brown will support an effort to prevent 10,000 youth a year from arrest, court involvement, detention and incarceration.

Sawyer, who helms a committee on boys and men of color in the Assembly, thinks funding community organizations to work with young people who have experienced childhood trauma yield a big financial payoff in preventing future incarceration costs.

“When we incarcerate young people, that’s about $200,000 to $300,000 per year, per kid,” Sawyer said in an interview with The Imprint. “With this $100 million, I could save the taxpayers maybe $8 to 10 billion. Even Trump would have to say this could be the greatest investment known to mankind.”

The budget request calls for $75 million to be spent over three years, with the money targeted at communities with disproportionately high rates of arrest of youth of color. Jurisdictions that have above average rates of youth arrested for misdemeanors and status offenses would also be given special consideration.

The money would be administered by the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), along with the state’s Departments of Health and Human Services and Education. Local jurisdictions would have to provide 25 percent in matching funds to be eligible for programs into their county.

The BSCC would help local jurisdictions contract with community-based organizations, and must hire an independent evaluator to assess progress over the three years. The state will track the reduction in the number of law enforcement responses to low-level offenses, state and local cost savings, youth placements in congregate care and school disruptions, among others.

The Youth Reinvestment Fund is the second significant push for juvenile diversion over the past year. In November, Los Angeles County moved forward with a pre-arrest youth diversion plan that is banking on the expansion of successful community programs, such as Centinela Youth Services’ partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Jones-Sawyer’s request places a special emphasis on recruiting community-based organizations to serve youth, and specify that no law enforcement organizations are eligible for the juvenile diversion money.

Frankie Guzman, director of the California Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law, said that there are already some community-based diversion programs across the state, but most are underfunded.

The state currently allocates about $250 million in grants to counties to work with young people through the Youth Offender Block Grant and the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act funding streams. However, Guzman said that the bulk of these funds goes toward funding positions in probation department.

“Although the state does invest some money to local efforts that are allowed to be used for diversion, very little of that money is actually in fact used for diversion, with most of going toward probation salaries,” Guzman said. “This proposal essentially turns our current system and our practice on its head by putting money in the hands of the people that are going to provide these services.”

The Youth Reinvestment Fund would also put $15 million toward hiring social workers in county public defender offices, where young people without money are provided legal representation in juvenile delinquency court.

Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods. Credit: Alameda County Public Defender’s Office.

Only a few counties in the state — including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Contra Costa Counties — have hired social workers to assist young people during the adjudication process. But Jones-Sawyer said even in counties like Los Angeles, social workers are only able to participate in a small fraction of cases seen in court.

At a hearing for the budget request, Brendon Woods, head of the Alameda County Public Defender’s office, said youth who have access to social workers during their court cases are more likely to have access services that reduce recidivism.

“The ones that do have social workers have tremendous success in terms of advocating for their youth, finding alternatives to incarceration, getting them into community-based programs,” Woods said. “It is almost night and day compared to the services that are provided to youth when social workers are involved as opposed to when they are not.”

The budget ask would also allocate $10 million earmarked to fund tribal diversion programs for Native American youth in the state. Native American youth are about twice as likely as their peers to be incarcerated in state courts for probation violations and status offenses.

Virginia Hedrick, a member of the Yurok Tribe and director of policy and planning for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, speaks at a state senate budget hearing.

According to Virginia Hedrick, a member of the Yurok Tribe and director of policy and planning for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, funds for a youth diversion program could help Native American youth in the state who have been facing significant health and substance abuse challenges in recent years.

The Yurok Tribe of Northern California recently declared a “state of emergency” after seven young tribal members committed suicide over an 18-month span.

“When we try to think of the number of young men who have gone directly from high school to a four-year college, we can think of more who have died by suicide or motor vehicle accidents,” Hedrick said.

Gov. Brown is due to deliver a revision of his budget by Friday. After that, legislators will have about a month to finalize a budget bill. Brown must sign the legislation before the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

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