Do Public Health Agencies Hold the Key to Working with At-Risk Youth in California?

A new bill would create three to five county Offices of Youth Development and Diversion across the state as part of a pilot project overseen by public health departments. Photo from 123RF.

Amid a shrinking juvenile justice system, a new California bill is part of a statewide debate about how the state should serve young people at greatest risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Building on nascent efforts in Los Angeles County, Senate Bill (SB) 433 would create a handful of county Offices of Youth Development and Diversion (YDD) across the state as part of a proposed three-year, $10 million pilot project. These offices would be responsible for creating a coordinated countywide system of pre-arrest juvenile diversion and youth development programs from largely community-based providers and would be managed by public health departments instead of county-run probation departments.

Last year, the state allocated $37 million for community-based youth diversion efforts for the first time as part of the Youth Reinvestment Fund. Today, as advocates gather to ask Governor Gavin Newsom (D) for another $100 million earmarked for juvenile diversion, SB 433 has opened up a wider discussion about who should work with youth at greatest risk of entering the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

With the number of youth held in juvenile detention facilities across the state currently at a low ebb, the bill has highlighted a conflict between the state’s probation leaders, who have typically overseen juvenile diversion programs, and advocates critical of their punitive approach to those youths.

“This bill recognizes that the experts that are best able to deal with kids in developmentally appropriate ways are often not the same people in decision making seats,” said Frankie Guzman of the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), one of the sponsors of SB 433. “We often defer as a society and certainly as a government to law enforcement, most of whom have no idea what they’re doing and make things worse for young people.”

In recent years, a public health approach has become an increasingly prevalent factor in juvenile justice systems across the country. In 2017, after pressure from youth advocates hoping to close a Seattle juvenile detention center, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that it would hand over management of the center to the county’s public health department and move toward a goal of having no youth in lock up.

“By adopting a public health approach, we limit the traumatization of youth in detention, and ensure families have access to supports and services in the community,” said Constantine at the time the move was announced.

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That sounds similar to what Newsom proposed in his first state budget in January, when he pledged to move the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) from its current home in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation into the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. Though details of the plan are still nonexistent, Newsom has said the move will help DJJ youth “unpack trauma and adverse experiences many have suffered.”

In L.A. County, the county’s public health department has played a leading role in developing a coordinated, countywide juvenile diversion infrastructure, which is housed in the Division of Youth Diversion and Development (YDD) in the county’s Department of Health Services. After L.A. County approved a $40 million pre-arrest diversion plan in 2017, YDD analyzed youth arrest data across the county and convened a wide range of stakeholders, including community groups, law enforcement and advocates, to work through thorny protocols for diverting young people at the time of arrest, before justice system involvement. The first cohort of community-based organizations are slated to start receiving funding for juvenile diversion work later this summer, according to YDD Research and Policy Manager Taylor Schooley.

Schooley said public health agencies can provide an ideal home to juvenile diversion efforts by identifying the root causes of justice system involvement. They can also serve as a neutral party of sorts, able to easily move between law enforcement agencies and community groups, something that was important to developing L.A.’s juvenile diversion efforts.

“Although the concept of diversion is not new, the kind of diversion we’re trying to implement, really early diversion in lieu of arrest, is so new that it raised questions about the ethical use and keeping of data that are sort of unprecedented,” Schooley said. “It creates this really interesting type of data that is not justice system data but is created out of an interaction with the justice system, which raises a lot of legal implications and confidentiality issues.”

The Chief Probation Officers of California, whose county members typically oversee a range of different diversion programs, have opposed the legislation.

“We think the public health lens is very appropriate to deal with the early childhood development and the community factors that are going on with young people like poverty, homelessness, adverse childhood experiences and trauma,” said Stephanie James, the organization’s president and the chief probation officer for San Joaquin County. “Where we start to diverge with this bill is around diversion.”

According to James, probation departments across the state have already been doing some form of diversion work for more than a decade — leading to between 60 and 70 percent of youth being diverted from formal probation supervision.

“Because we’ve been doing so much of that work, our numbers statewide are showing that we have a significant reduction statewide on every aspect of the juvenile justice system, including at the DJJ and what’s been going on in our halls and camps,” James said. “It doesn’t make sense to us. Diversion is the space we’re already in. It doesn’t seem that effective or efficient to have another county department do the work we’re already doing.”

Like many other states, the footprint of California’s juvenile justice system is much diminished. Youth arrests for felonies in the state dropped by 68 percent from 1980 to 2017, according to recent analysis from the San Francisco Chronicle. Juvenile incarceration has dropped dramatically as well, and more than 8,000 beds lie empty in juvenile halls and camps across the state — which are at just 35 percent of their total capacity.

According to NCYL’s Guzman, probation departments should not receive sole credit for the state’s shrinking juvenile justice system.

“Juvenile crime rates have dropped across all 50 states, not just California. If they are suggesting somehow that they’re responsible for other states … where they have no impact, it just doesn’t sound true,” he said.

He credits efforts like the Youth Reinvestment Fund as new-found vehicles to empower community-based efforts at diverting kids.

“It’s important to us to recognize that there are people in the community that can do this better,” said Guzman. “Probation is trying to do what they can to improve life outcomes for kids but unfortunately for them, the way they do that is through custody, control and coercive practices, through handcuffs, juvenile halls and fear tactics, and that doesn’t work.”

SB 433 is not about removing services from the purview of probation departments but instead aims to provide more options to young people before they reach probation, according to proponents of the bill like Guzman.

“Probation can and should divert kids who are on probation and who they know very well … But to suggest that probation has a monopoly on diverting all youth who might come into contact with the system, I think that’s wrong.”

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