Los Angeles County launches its new Department of Youth Development this week, an agency tasked with providing job training, mentoring and violence-prevention services to thousands of young people living in under-invested neighborhoods.
Aiming for a less-punitive approach to youth justice, the county will invest $25 million a year for 22 full-time positions within the department, and a director charged with coordinating “all efforts to advance youth development and alternatives to youth arrest and incarceration in Los Angeles County.”
At a public meeting this week, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl called the new department “a dream of mine.”
She also acknowledged its budget, one-third of what had originally been initially promised by the board, would be “a little lean at first.” But Kuehl said she envisioned its expansion over time.
She described the department as a central part of the county’s “care first” approach to youth justice, including moving some “duties that have historically rested, but I think inappropriately, with law enforcement.”
“The concept of youth development is so much broader than simply diversion from the justice system,” Kuehl said. “There’s so much room to reimagine upstream prevention efforts.”
Youth advocates say the new Department of Youth Development falls far short of the expansive vision of juvenile justice reform that the county has promised over the past two years, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and official public pledges to “reimagine” justice in Los Angeles County. That effort was supposed to shift funding away from law enforcement agencies and provide greater support for community-based prevention and safety net services.
Activists like Kenzo Sohoue, 22, of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, sought roughly $150 million for the reforms — more than six times what’s been provided for in the county budget passed this week. The funds would employ formerly incarcerated youth mentors and “credible messengers,” create 24-hour community-based services and “youth development networks” and support those leaving detention centers.
On Monday, dozens of members of the Los Angeles Youth Uprising coalition assailed the board of supervisors for failing to commit more funding for their “care first, jail last” approach, while continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the probation department that is charged with supervising youth in juvenile halls and camps.
Zoë Rawson, director of youth and community justice for the Long Beach-based Arts for Healing and Justice Network, said the current county budget “continues to invest in a long arc of harm to Black and brown youth, their families and their communities.”
Rawson went on to state: “We cannot repair these harms without addressing the bloated budget of probation and the sheriff and fully funding the Department of Youth Development.”
In 2020, county supervisors authored a radical new vision they titled Youth Justice Reimagined. Instead of juvenile detention facilities for young people arrested by police, the five-year plan promised “safe and healing centers,” combined with wraparound home-based services and the new youth development agency, a first for L.A. County.
Over time, money would be diverted from the probation department’s budget and instead be used to fund community-based organizations led by the new county agency, starting with an initial $75 million investment.
Supervisors this week approved $50 million less than that amount for the new department.
Meanwhile, a 2021 county report found the probation department has more than 400 vacant positions, which account for tens of millions of dollars in the agency’s $400 million budget for juvenile detention facilities. The county currently holds about 420 youth in probation-run juvenile halls and camps.
If community organizations were given that money, Sohue pointed out at a rally last week, they’d get better results.
“Probation has been receiving millions of dollars year after year, but many young people end up back incarcerated due to probation’s punishment approach,” he said.
There are numerous signs of dysfunction within facilities run by the probation department. Inspections from the California Board of State and Community Corrections have noted serious lapses at local juvenile halls. And earlier this month, for the second time in a year, the state agency called Central Juvenile Hall “unsuitable for the confinement of youth.” That determination came after an inspector found probation officers were not regularly completing safety checks on detained youth.
At a board of supervisors meeting on Monday, L.A. County Chief Executive Officer Fesia Davenport noted financial limitations that faced county leaders.
Some safety net programs are running deficits — from the massive Department of Children and Family Services to the violence-prevention Parks After Dark program. Those financial pressures are “a flashing yellow light, telling us that we should proceed cautiously and intentionally so we can achieve your board’s ambitious policy goals,” Davenport told supervisors.
She also noted that given the many vacancies within the probation department, her office will review ways to “right-size” the number of employees. The population of youth confined in camps and detention halls has gone down in recent years, although Davenport said the county must also prepare for an influx of incarcerated youth when state prisons shut down in the coming year.
Organizers with the Youth Justice Coalition and other activist groups have spent more than 15 years pushing for the county to do more than just punish youth.
And on Monday, coalition organizer Gloria Gonzalez urged supervisors not to move backward.
“Keep your promise and commitment to the young people and their families in L.A.,” she said, noting the reduced investment this week in the Department of Youth Development. “Twenty-five million dollars is not enough.”