L.A. County Approves Plan to Divert Youth from Justice System

With the support of a broad cross-section of juvenile justice advocates and newly minted Probation Department leadership, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal today that will create a comprehensive plan for juvenile diversion in the county.

The motion put forth by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn calls on the county Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai to hire a consultant to direct efforts “with a goal of minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.” The Los Angeles County Probation Department oversees the nation’s largest juvenile justice system, which includes some 1,200 youth incarcerated in its juvenile halls and camps and about 10,400 youth under supervision.

At the meeting of the Board of Supervisors today, advocates like Cheryl Bonacci said that the county has often failed to stop children from becoming more and more deeply involved in its juvenile justice system.

“As a Catholic chaplain for the Office of Restorative Justice for 15 years, I sat with too many 12- and 13-year-olds who don’t belong in juvenile hall and who could have benefited much more from a restorative pathway instead of punishment without proper support and guidance,” said Bonacci, now program director with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

The board’s decision to implement a system that would include alternatives to incarceration for at-risk youth was hailed by California Endowment CEO Robert Ross.

“The leadership that you are demonstrating in this county will be the bellwether indicator for the rest of the nation to see that because Los Angeles County can do this, the rest of the nation can do it as well,” Ross said.

The current system of diversion programs is a patchwork of many different programs scattered across the county. A January 2016 report authored by members of the Department of Public Health’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention for the county’s Education Coordinating Council found that many diversion programs are run by law enforcement agencies. Other youth diversion initiatives in the county are organized by community-based organizations, the Probation Department, school districts and the district attorney’s office.

Training, location, costs and evaluation of these programs vary widely, which means that young people in different parts of the county at risk of becoming entangled in the justice system do not have the same opportunities for diversion.

As Los Angeles County sets up a system that creates a more comprehensive system of juvenile diversions, California Defense Fund’s Patricia Soung said that the county should be mindful of the best practices of successful youth diversion programs. Not all diversion programs have the same outcomes.

“We need to pay more attention to the impact of diversion,” Soung said. “Ultimately, research has shown that some diversion practices have limited or even negative consequences, such as the idea of net widening, where greater numbers of young people end up having contact with the juvenile justice system.”

Senior leadership from the county’s Probation Department—Probation Chief Teri McDonald and Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell—both indicated their support for the plan.

Mitchell, who is tasked with running the juvenile side of the department, said that the Probation Department can better assess the needs of youth people before they enter the system.

“For those children that don’t pose a risk of public safety, they do not need be in the juvenile justice system,” Mitchell said.

Now in her second week on the job, Mitchell is already taking a look at the youth who enter the county’s system of juvenile halls and camps.

“We think that there are opportunities to better look at how we base our intake decisions of who comes into juvenile hall,” Mitchell said. “In the last eight months, we successfully diverted over 2,100 youths. We’re really proud of that and we’re doing really well, but that number can be improved.”

The youth diversion proposal calls for the new diversion consultant to work with a new committee of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee on developing a plan for diverting youth that’s in line with best practices and draws on successful community-based options when possible.

The plan also calls for the county to seek funding opportunities from existing state, federal and local funding streams, as well as from potential partners from the private or nonprofit sector via the county’s Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships.

Reducing the number of youth incarcerated and supervised by the Probation Department could mean significant savings for the county. According to the diversion motion, the current cost for a youth person at one of the county’s 12 juvenile camps is an estimated $247,000 per child per year.

A report from the county’s CEO about the diversion plan is due back in four months.

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