L.A. County to Debate Sweeping Juvenile Diversion Plan

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week will consider a plan to divert thousands of youths at the point of arrest, shielding up to 80 percent of juveniles in the county from probation and permanent records.

“Board action is now necessary to guarantee youth have access to supportive services instead of arrest and incarceration, which is morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” reads a motion put forward by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn for Tuesday’s meeting.

Back in January, the board opted to create a standardized juvenile diversion plan for all parts of the county, citing the high cost of juvenile incarceration and the need to leverage effective diversion efforts already in place.

Over the past several months, a group of stakeholders, including members of law enforcement, county agencies, advocates and community-based organizations, worked to create a framework for a county diversion plan.

According to that plan, “A Roadmap For Advancing Youth Diversion In Los Angeles County,” a new Office of Youth Diversion and Development (OYDD) would be created and staffed within the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry. With a goal of keeping as many young people out of the justice system as possible, OYDD would divert young people who admit to low-level offenses to community alternatives.

The OYDD office would serve as a coordinating hub between law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations that would contract with the county to provide services to young people. It would also act as a home for youth development activities that advocates hope can provide alternatives to crime.

The ultimate goal, according to the Board of Supervisors’ motion, is to connect youth with supportive services, which could be delivered at a fraction of the cost of incarceration at one of the county’s juvenile detention camps. A full year at a camp costs taxpayers $247,000 a year, the motion said.

On Tuesday, the board will consider the new juvenile diversion office and how to fund its operation.

To support youth diversion efforts, the county CEO’s office has identified $26.1 million in available funds from the Probation Department, the Department of Mental Health and the county CEO’s office. The county would still need to provide $14 million to fully fund the OYDD over the next four years.

In 2015, there were 13,665 juvenile arrests in Los Angeles County, a more than four-fold decrease from the 56,286 such arrests in 2005.

About 11,000 of those arrests are eligible for diversion instead of arrest or citation. But only a small percentage of these youth is currently diverted into community programs because the county lacks a system for referrals and a way to support those programs.

“That number is exciting but also depressing,” said Vanessa Petti, the director of Restorative Practices in Communities for the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ).

The Long Beach-based CCEJ is one of a handful of community-based organizations that provides diversion opportunities in a community setting. The organization offers restorative justice services to youth before and after they are charged with a crime.

But the pipeline of referrals from law enforcement agencies to community organizations engaged in diversion is small and often uneven, according to Petti.

“Just last year, we were only given approximately 100 cases through our diversion system for the juvenile-justice system,” Petti said. “There are other agencies that are doing this work, but I don’t know of anyone who’s getting hundreds and hundreds of cases throughout the year.”

Petti hopes that an organized county-wide juvenile diversion office will help increase the number of cases that are shunted to community organizations like CCEJ as well as more serious felony offenses that she believes could still be resolved through approaches like restorative justice.

Building trust between law enforcement and community organizations that have often struggled to receive funding from the county will be a significant hurdle to success, according to Anti-Recidivism Coalition Policy Director Bikila Ochoa who, like Petti, helped contribute to the diversion report.

“This is not just about diverting away from the system but also diverting to organizations in the community that can improve outcomes for young people,” Ochoa said.

Implementing a comprehensive diversion program in L.A. County will also mean confronting racial and ethnic disparities. In 2015, African-American and Latino youth made up a disproportionate share of juvenile arrests in the county. A recent report also found that youth of color are already overrepresented at juvenile detention facilities overseen by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Ochoa hopes that the OYDD could play an active role in making sure that youth of color are being provided an equal opportunity to benefit from a push toward diversion in Los Angeles County.

“Despite the fact that fewer young people are being incarcerated, we as a county have not done a good job at addressing racial inequities,” Ochoa said. “So far, there hasn’t been any guidance on how to reduce those disparities within diversion.”

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