On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ambitious plan for juvenile diversion that would create widespread opportunities for youth to avoid arrest for misdemeanors and some felony offenses.
The county’s diversion plan found that about 11,000 youth could be eligible for diversion under the new plan. That’s about 80 percent of the 13,665 youth who were arrested in L.A. County in 2015.
“By launching this work, L.A. County can and will lead the nation in promoting youth well-being, promoting the issues of addressing inequities and racial disparities in the juvenile justice system itself and finally embracing cost-effective approaches,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a co-author of the motion.
The Los Angeles County Probation Department oversees the largest juvenile justice system in the country, which includes about 1,000 youth in juvenile detention facilities and about 9,000 youth in the community. More than 90 percent of the youth under the department’s supervision are African-American or Latino.
The county’s juvenile diversion plan is aimed at preventing the consequences of justice system involvement, which can include a criminal record, an increased risk of high school dropout and other lifelong negative outcomes.
“The best way to improve our juvenile justice system is to keep more juveniles out of the system,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn.
A newly established central office — the Office of Youth Diversion and Development (OYDD) — will now be charged with serving as a go-between for law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations in the county. The OYDD will be housed in the Office of Diversion and Reentry, a county office that seeks to channel adult offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues away from the justice system and into services.
Under the terms of the diversion plan, the OYDD would operate with a budget of $26.1 million, though it is seeking $14 million in additional funds. A report is due back in two weeks about how the county might tap into other funds to support the new youth diversion agency.
Under the OYDD, youth who would have otherwise been adjudicated for status offenses, misdemeanors and certain non-violent felonies will now be eligible for diversion.
California is the only state, or one of very few, that separates low-level and high-level felonies. Under current law, more serious crimes like homicide, rape, kidnapping and arson — also known as 707 (b) offenses under the California Welfare and Institutions Code — must be prosecuted as felonies. However, police officers can choose to divert youth for other felony charges, depending on their discretion.
Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, called the supervisors’ decision to move forward on a comprehensive juvenile diversion plan “a historic day in the history of justice reform.”
“It will raise a lot of the eyebrows, this board moving in this direction,” Ross said.
Even as advocates remain hopeful about the new diversion program, there are many details to iron out. A major concern among advocates is that a record of a young person’s arrest and participation in a diversion program could end up in a law enforcement database and impact future interactions with law enforcement.
“Over the next few years, we will have a system that ensures the personal information of youth not be entered into any statewide data system,” said Peter Espinoza, director of the Office of Diversion and Reentry.
Angela Irvine, a consultant with Impact Justice who worked with county stakeholders to craft the diversion plan, said that the success of the county’s plan now lies with its ability to help police departments and community-based organizations find a way to collaborate.
“If we are going to serve 80 percent of youth in this county, we need to build a tremendous infrastructure of community-based organizations to do that work,” Irvine said.
There is hope that the diversion program could lead to further investments in youth development in Los Angeles County. That could have a big impact on at-risk youth in areas of the county without many supportive services, according to Youth Justice Coalition organizer Tanisha Denard.
Denard spent time in juvenile hall as a teen after she was arrested for unpaid truancy tickets. She is hopeful that the county’s diversion program could offer an alternative to young people like her.
“Having preventative measures is going to help a lot,” Denard said. “I don’t believe we should have to go to jail — or even to get arrested or come into contact with the police — to get a program.
“I feel like these steps that we are taking will still help, but hopefully we get to have places where young people can go before they even come into contact with police.”