On February 5, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a landmark public-private partnership that will get a significant amount of county funding into the hands of community-based organizations focused on keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system by offering an array of much-needed services and opportunities.
Through the partnership, the L.A. County Probation Department will redirect $3.2 million in Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) funds to two top L.A.-based foundations – the Liberty Hill Foundation and the California Community Foundation (CCF) – which will serve as financial intermediaries between the county and local organizations diverting kids from justice system involvement.
“Prevention works far better than punishment,” said L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “We also know we can benefit from collaborating with the on-the-ground experts who work with young people day in and day out.”
Kuehl said she’s proud of the county’s “new vision” for using this kind of innovative public/private partnership “to help keep our kids out of the youth justice system.”
The partnership with Liberty Hill and the CCF, Kuehl added, “allows county government to take advantage of community expertise and provide effective services that really work for young people.”
Tuesday’s action is part of L.A. County’s commitment to move away from subjecting kids to punitive incarceration in the nation’s largest juvenile justice system, toward a trauma-informed model for the youth who do wind up in the county’s care, and an increasing push for diversion. In 2017, the L.A. County Supervisors triggered the development of an historic three-phase juvenile diversion program.
As the number of kids supervised by L.A. County Probation has steadily dropped in recent years, the department has shut down all but three juvenile halls, seven youth camps, and a specialized residential center, with plans for additional future closures.
Yet the work of diverting kids is still in the beginning stages, as is the newer movement toward youth development, which attempts to go upstream of system contact to prevention, by preparing young people to build strengths and thrive.
One key way to boost youth development and diversion efforts in Los Angeles, according to Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, is to ensure that money makes it into the hands of organizations that are “proactively providing critical programs for our youth” at the community level.
Echoing Kuehl, Mitchell, who oversees all of the probation’s juvenile services, said her agency was “proud of this new partnership” centered around a “shared objective to improve the outcomes of youth in our communities.”
One of the reasons for the partnership is the fact that JJCPA funds and other caches of county money, including funding streams for vulnerable adults, have historically been difficult to obtain for many community programs, even those holding impressive track records in the community.
A New Way of Life, Susan Burton’s nationally-known re-entry program that demonstrably helps women returning from prison get back on their feet, reportedly backed out of a potential contract with L.A. County after being faced with repeated lengthy delays and a series of unwieldy obstacles.
Smaller local operations with limited infrastructure and resources can find the path to funding blocked, but even larger, well-known organizations have often had trouble hitting all of the county’s marks to win a contract.
The agreement announced Tuesday, aims to streamline the process, so that the county no longer passes up on proven programs. Those organizations that CCH and Liberty Hill select will receive specialized coaching and other supports to grow their operations.
“Community-based organizations have already demonstrated their power in helping to effectively allocate these critical resources,” said Liberty Hill CEO Shane Murphy Goldsmith. “This will prevent losing more vulnerable young people to incarceration; instead, they will be connected in meaningful ways in our communities and will help us make Los Angeles the County we know it can be.”
Misspent Millions and “Mattress Money”
In 2000, the California legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), through which the state started setting aside millions of dollars a year for kids who were struggling with “delinquency.”
The more than $30 million that L.A. County receives yearly from JJCPA is specifically designated for evidence-based community programs aimed at keeping kids who have had contact with the juvenile justice system from returning, and to keep kids at risk of landing in the system from entering it in the first place.
Yet, before Mitchell and Probation Chief Terri McDonald arrived on the scene in January 2017 to run the department, there were repeated controversies about the way JJCPA funds were spent, and about who decided how they were spent.
It didn’t help that probation had a history of sitting on millions of unspent JJCPA funds, and spending what it did use on questionable programs, like its controversial youth program known colloquially by critics as “voluntary probation.” (McDonald and Mitchell have since shut the program down.)
This is part of why youth advocates see the new partnership as a genuine signal of change.
This new public-private partnership is “a very important shift in a system that has historically been much more focused on risk management,” says Efrain Escobedo, California Community Foundation’s vice president in charge of education and immigration programs.
Tuesday’s plan, according to Escobedo, is “a signal with real resources behind it.” It says, “we want to move away from punishing youth in our highest needs communities,” and instead, “focus on delivering the services that really unlock their potential.”
And from a systemic level, he said, “it really puts county leadership on a more progressive track to re-envision the county’s role in youth incarceration, and to instead invest in youth realization — and that’s a radically different path.”
Taylor Walker is the assistant editor of WitnessLA. A version of this story originally appeared there.