Proclaiming they are fearful about the potential of rising crime in their neighborhoods, upscale residents in the far reaches of Los Angeles County are fighting to block dozens of youthful offenders from being sent to secure detention camps in their home communities — a key component of statewide reforms to shut down California’s once-barbaric juvenile prisons.
Testifying before the Santa Clarita City Council in June, local residents blasted the county’s “Youth Justice Reimagined” plans, and the state’s efforts to bring teens and young adults convicted of the most serious and violent crimes back to county-run facilities nearer to their families.
Resident Grace Elliot expressed fears about the people visiting detained youth, “some of whom are violent gang members,” who “will be traveling throughout our neighborhoods,” she said. “We will see more gang-related violence, burglaries, robberies and child abductions, carjackings, the sale of drugs.”
Local resident Janet Gibson shared a dire warning during a county meeting in May: “If there is any blood lost because of these votes, even one time,” she said of local officials approving county plans, “it’s on your hands forever and ever.”
The heated opposition had an immediate impact on young lives. Last week, Los Angeles County supervisors voted to halt plans to transfer some young people convicted of serious and violent crimes from state prisons to two recently closed probation facilities, Camp Joseph Scott and Camp Kenyon Scudder. Located about 35 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, both camps are nestled near the Angeles National Forest in Santa Clarita, a mostly white suburban city with a median annual household income of nearly $100,000.
Tuesday’s vote to slow down the resettlement of former youth prisoners — secured by supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger — sets Los Angeles County back by months on its previous plans. Temporarily, some teens will be placed instead in a Malibu probation camp, and a handful of girls who have committed serious offenses will be housed at the county’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.
That decision brought still more controversy, this time from youth justice advocates. They say housing youth in facilities that are not designed for long-term stays, treatment and rehabilitation violates the local and statewide commitment to overhauling the treatment of juvenile offenders. What’s more, L.A. County’s two juvenile halls remain under court supervision, as a result of a California Department of Justice investigation found probation staff employed excessive physical and chemical force against incarcerated youth.
“No part of Sylmar is good for youth,” Sophia Cristo, a 25-year-old advocate with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, in an interview with The Imprint. “Putting them all in a smashed-up, prison-like setting is just setting them up for failure.”
July 1 marked the first day counties must keep young people convicted of murder, assault and rape in county-run facilities, instead of sending them to the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice, which has embarked on a multi-year process of shutting down its three remaining youth prisons. In these cases, young adults can now stay in juvenile detention facilities until age 25.
Under an agreement between the governor and the state Legislature, counties have until January to present plans for where and how they will house their juvenile offenders, plans which must detail a therapeutic approach to their care and custody.
After months of planning meetings in Los Angeles County, in June representatives from the probation department, office of education and the department of mental health, as well as prosecutors, public defenders, juvenile court judges and youth advocates produced a detailed plan to house local youth. The plan includes new ideas relying on formerly incarcerated people as mentors, refashioning probation camps into secure “step-down” facilities, and deploying restorative justice circles.
As part of the county-wide plan, the group selected the use of the two 100-bed probation camps in Santa Clarita citing the ample space in and around the facilities to run rehabilitative programming. Both need major security enhancements, such as replacing the chain-link fences that surround the facilities. Probation officials pledged to hire an outside consultant to make security upgrades, including those recommended by the Sheriff’s Department. Girls, who make up a small percentage of the overall serious and violent juvenile offender population, would be sent to the county’s Dorothy Kirby Center, a secure treatment facility in Commerce for teens under court supervision.
Over the past six years, Los Angeles County has sent roughly 60 young people each year to Division of Juvenile Justice prisons, according to county data. The overwhelming majority of those teens — about 94% — are Black or Latino. Three-fourths had been prescribed psychotropic medication, indicating high levels of psychiatric and emotional distress.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisors Barger and Solis helped pass a last-minute motion that called for the county to scrap the previous plans, carefully crafted over months by the architects of the local reform. By a 3-2 vote, the board directed county officials to re-analyze the options for housing serious offenders and issue a new report in three months.
“I want to be able to make sure that my constituents and I are feeling truly comfortable that this is the best decision that we can make for our young people,” Solis said.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell supported placing the youth at camps Scott and Scudder, and opposed the move by Solis and Barger to delay the transition.
“This does not look, in any way, like anything that helps these young people,” Kuehl said of their motion.
In their objections to the county plans, the cities of Santa Clarita and Commerce cited the failure of the county to seek and receive sufficient input from local residents who could be impacted by the new usage of the camps. Last week, Santa Clarita’s mayor sent a letter to the board saying the county had not followed California Environmental Quality Act regulations when considering the two probation camps.
During public comment, Urban Peace Institute Policy Coordinator Nicole Brown called that “a classic NIMBY move” that disguised other reasons for opposing the project.
“This is not about environmental concerns,” Brown said of the tactic she described as Not-In-My-Backyard. “This is about an outdated super-predator mindset about our youth of color and their families, and it is rooted in racism.”
Opposition to the county’s juvenile justice plans has been brewing for more than a month in the suburban community of Santa Clarita, which finance company MoneyGeek recently called the fourth safest city in California. Built in 1958, Camps Scott and Scudder sit on a wide-open expanse of land across from a quiet neighborhood with the occasional horseback rider.
A posting on the NextDoor website alerted local residents to the plans to house youth offenders locally, who aired concerns at a June 22 Santa Clarita City Council meeting. Nearly 20 people spoke for and against the county plans, as well as city officials.
“Here is yet one more instance of the state abdicating its responsibility and putting it on to local communities, without any thought, without talking to us, without any discussion whatsoever,” Councilmember Jason Gibbs said.
Objections included not being notified about the camps’ new use, impact on property values and more traffic. Residents also cited fears of rising crime.
“It was devastating for me to hear that hardened criminals would serve long term in a community that I adore, across the street from where I live,” Renee Lindsay said. “This will bring crime to our community — not only from the family and friends that will be visiting these inmates.”
Violent crime in large cities across the state spiked in 2020 during a year marked by the stress of a deadly pandemic. Overall, homicides increased by 31% last year, according to the California Department of Justice. But there is no evidence that is publicly available that crime is directly attributable to youthful offenders in the highest level of the state’s secure juvenile detention system.
The Santa Clarita City Council has expressed displeasure about other public safety issues in recent months. Like several other municipalities in the county, the city issued a vote of “no confidence” in Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, in response to his policies offering leniency to low-level offenders and eliminating certain sentencing enhancements.
Some Santa Clarita residents have called for the county to forego the use of the probation camps, and build a new secure facility next to a county jail instead. Others have suggested the county keep all young people in juvenile halls that offer more prison-like security measures, but have little space for creating the therapeutic home-like settings that promise to treat the root causes of youth crimes — reducing recidivism and ultimately making the public safer.
Cristo, who was incarcerated by the state in a youth prison as recently as August, calls the local residents’ ideas “horrifying.” She said she was relieved to hear about the closure of the state’s youth prison system last year, when she was still locked up at the Division of Juvenile Justice’s Ventura facility. Since then, she’s been enthusiastic about the potential for L.A. County’s reform known as Youth Justice Reimagined to alter the trajectory of young people arrested and charged with crimes.
The discussions at the Santa Clarita City Council meeting represent a step backward, Cristo said.
“It was really upsetting to hear that these kids are ‘monsters’ and that they’re going to be in our backyard,” she said. “Labeling these kids this way, it takes away their hope that they might have another chance, a better chance. It feels like this whole city’s already against us. ”
Cristo said she fears that the temporary placement of young women at the Sylmar juvenile hall may become permanent, if political opposition is too much to overcome. Space inside the facility for family visits and services is already limited, and rehabilitation will be hampered by the punitive design of secure units in the juvenile hall — where some youth face “a prison within a prison,” she said.
“When you walk inside Sylmar, you see nothing but fences and barbed wire,” she said. “It’s a place where you see kids walking out, waist chained and their feet shackled. I don’t know how people would think this is going to be a place that will help them rehabilitate.”