L.A. Advocates Eye Two Paths to Fund Youth Development: Pot Tax, Police Cutbacks

Los Angeles has long lagged behind other major U.S. cities when it comes to youth development spending, especially when it comes to comparing city budgets. But now, between juvenile justice reform efforts at the county level and the planned legalization of recreational marijuana in the city, the floodgates to funding may be starting to open.

Youth development is a somewhat nebulous term that refers to services that focus on building the strengths and assets of youth, as opposed to addressing negative behavior. Youth development advocates nationwide have argued for greater use of youth development models and programs in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

At the city level, Los Angeles has dedicated less than 0.7 percent of its budget to youth development, according to a report. This amounts to about $45 per youth in the city, according to the advocacy group Youth Justice Coalition (YJC).

In stark contrast, San Francisco spends an average of $873 per youth on development services, according to a YJC analysis of city budgets in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. New York City is home to twice as many young people as L.A., but spends 14 times more on youth development. In New York, for example, the city contracts with more than 900 community-based programs to provide free extracurricular activities to the city’s K-12 students.

Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan for a countywide juvenile diversion program. That includes establishing a centralized Office of Youth Diversion and Development (OYDD) to coordinate countywide youth diversion efforts and contract with community-based organizations for diversion services.

“Young people at YJC have been fighting for this for a long time,” said Kim McGill, a YJC organizer. “I give [the Board of Supervisors] credit for hearing the young people, and I give the young people credit for putting that forward.”

One Goal, Two Plans

As a commitment to youth development gains steam in the L.A. area, two groups are working to steer the progress. And while they’re working toward similar goals, they are taking starkly different tracks.

YJC is working on a plan that would fund more youth development services by divesting funds from law enforcement and reallocating that money. A recent report from the group recommended redirecting 5 percent of the Los Angeles Police Department and city attorney budgets, or about $174 million.

This account would fund 30 youth centers around the city, 350 full-time intervention workers, and the creation of 15,000 youth jobs, according to YJC.

This would be in addition to the juvenile diversion funding pulled together for OYDD, which includes a $3 million annual commitment from the Los Angeles County Probation Department. This represents less than 0.01 percent of the department’s proposed 2017-18 budget, which is well more than $900 million.

This approach to funding youth development through juvenile justice reform has earned significant attention — and funding — in the philanthropic sector.

“We really want to shrink the system so that we reduce the number of young people who are arrested and incarcerated,” said Shane Murphy Goldsmith, president of the Liberty Hill Foundation. “We want to close down youth prisons that we don’t need and then we want to reinvest the dollars that are saved into the community’s development system.”

Liberty Hill recently won a $100,000 grant from the Durfee Foundation to research and test approaches to improving juvenile justice and youth development in L.A.

“The diversion program is incredibly exciting and really could be an anchor that enables us to build a whole new system built around youth development,” Goldsmith said.

Another youth-focused nonprofit — Legacy LA, serving the East L.A. community — is lobbying L.A.’s City Council for youth development funds to be generated by state-regulated marijuana sales.

After California passed Prop. 64 in 2016, recreational marijuana is set to be legalized statewide on January 1, 2018. While income projections vary widely, state-regulated marijuana sales are generally expected to bring a windfall of many millions to L.A.’s coffers. The Los Angeles City Council plans to set aside a portion of this new revenue for a “community reinvestment fund” focused on education and youth development.

There’s currently no set plan on how that money will be distributed, though, and as it stands, it will be up to the city’s Cannabis Commission to determine priorities for the funding. Legacy LA is pushing for the city to create a Youth Development Task Force to help steer the allocation of these “social equity and reinvestment” funds. The city is expected to address this issue in January.

Legacy LA Executive Director Lou Calanche said that funding youth development by tapping this new source of revenue seemed more achievable than pushing for a divestment in law enforcement spending.

“We just feel like that’s a harder ask for the city,” Calanche said.

From Pipe Dream to Progress

Though the establishment of the OYDD may be just the first step of the long process of bureaucratic change, it took many years of advocacy efforts to get here.

“When you’re proposing big changes that are radical to people, you have to repeat it over and over again until it becomes normal,” McGill said. “Nobody had even heard the term ‘youth development’ when we started.”

For years, the group found unconventional ways to keep the issue in front of L.A. lawmakers. When the county proposed the expansion of a detention facility on a site with concerns of toxic contamination, youth protested in hazmat suits. They brought contaminated soil to a Board of Supervisors meeting, which they say the supervisors refused to touch. One Halloween, youth advocates dressed in scary masks and protested under the slogan, “We’re not monsters.”

McGill said these events have kept youth “sustained creatively and culturally,” and ready to jump right in when serious discussions around plans for development and diversion initiatives started cropping up in the county government. Youth themselves weren’t exactly invited to take part in these discussions, but as McGill puts it, “we kind of bum-rushed the meetings.”

“When it was first beginning, it was a whole room full of cops,” said 18-year-old YJC advocate Lupita Carballo. “So I stopped going because I felt uncomfortable, but that’s what they want so I just kept going. Even when it was so boring it put me to sleep, no matter what I kept going because we need it.”

In October, Legacy LA rallied more than 300 young people from around the city to begin brainstorming and creating a list of demands for the development investment they want to see from the city. Now, they’re working to set up meetings between each city council member and a group of teen advocates from the district they represent in an effort to personalize the need for a focus on youth development.

“I think what really makes it different this time is that it’s youth doing it,” said Lesly Valenzuela, a 17-year-old advocate with Legacy LA. “Youth are so passionate about what they want, they believe in what they want, so they just keep working at it, and working at it, working at it.”

A Step in the Right Direction

At the county level, the establishment of the OYDD is being hailed as the first time in county history that youth development has gotten dedicated focus and funds, but it remains to be seen what type of programs and services will be made available. Both YJC and Legacy LA acknowledge they still have serious work ahead of them to see this nascent office evolve into their ultimate visions for youth development.

YJC is pushing for an independent youth development department, fully separate from the county’s numerous law enforcement agencies. The newly established OYDD is being created out of the Office of Reentry and Diversion, and youth must have contact with law enforcement to be eligible for OYDD intervention and services.

“All youth should have access to a youth development department,” McGill said. “You shouldn’t have to be in conflict with the law to have access [to it].”

Legacy LA plans to continue pushing for a similar commitment at the city level.

“We’re happy that the county has taken the first step in envisioning a plan for youth development in the region,” Calanche said.

Both groups said a key focus moving forward will be to ensure that youth — those most impacted by these planning and budget decisions — continue to have a seat at the table and a say in the direction of youth development in their communities.

“We’re making small, incremental steps toward a county and a state that really values and cares for young people,” McGill said.

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