Los Angeles County chooses to make a $1 million-per-child-per-year investment in hundreds of youth. Even better, this investment goes to kids who come from the most vulnerable, the most trauma-stricken, the most historically resource-deprived communities in the county, which are, of course, low-income communities of color.
Amazing, right? There’s just one catch.
That $1 million is actually the annualized cost per child to run the county’s youth prison system. Los Angeles County spends just under $400 million per year total on youth prisons, which hold approximately 400 children at any given time.
This misguided investment is disproportionately made on Black and brown youth. For example, roughly 8% of Los Angeles County youth are Black, yet Black youth represent around 36% of the youth prison population. They are 6.5 times more likely, and Latino youth are twice as likely, to be arrested than white youth.
The two of us have seen both the perils and the possibilities of our current youth legal system. Tommy experienced the trauma of youth incarceration firsthand and now works to advocate for children facing the same injustices. Julio has worked in philanthropy for two decades, and his up-close view of the broken criminal legal system has helped him grow programs that support formerly incarcerated youth.
We are both appalled — but neither of us surprised — to learn just what that million dollars gets us. According to a new report by the Probation Oversight Commission, L.A. County youth prisons are in a horrific state. Detained youths are fed bug-infested food, locked in their cells 23 hours a day, and forced to wear the same dirty clothes. Girls and young women were not provided with proper menstrual care supplies or even allowed to shower when needed.
These are only the latest in a long and ugly history of the conditions at Los Angeles youth prisons, which include more than a dozen allegations by girls and young women of sexual assault — some resulting in convictions — and employees turning a blind eye to abuse.
Even when conditions are less overtly abusive, research shows that youth prisons are ineffective at keeping the public safe. When compared to youth who are not incarcerated for similar offenses, those who emerge from incarceration are 13% less likely to graduate from high school than their peers and 23% more likely to return to prison as adults. Meanwhile, studies of rehabilitation-oriented programs for youth have consistently shown strong results, reducing recidivism rates anywhere from 10 to 38%.
What if we viewed our young people as being worthy of the support they need to help them fulfill their potential to live happy, healthy and productive lives? What if we acted to reverse generations of under-investment in our poorest communities and worked to provide fair opportunities for their young people and families? What if we treated that $1 million per child as an actual investment in their futures instead of a budget for inflicting punishment?
Tentative steps taken recently hint at what could be possible. In 2017, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called for a marked decrease in youth incarceration, which resulted in the closure of nine youth facilities, a $50 million investment in proven community-based alternatives, and a 60% reduction of youth in custody.
Then, in 2020, the Los Angeles County Youth Justice Work Group released the “Youth Justice Reimagined” report, which outlined a range of recommended actions that the county could take to improve the lives of young people across the county. These recommendations included dedicated youth development workers at public schools, 24-hour youth and community centers, and secure, home-like healing centers with trauma-informed care where high-need youths could receive care close to their families. All of this would be housed under a new Department of Youth Development.
The price tag? To divert a youth through restorative justice and youth diversion programs, the average annual cost can be as low as $4,000 — less than half-of-one-percent of the $1 million annual cost to incarcerate the same youth.
But since this groundbreaking report came out, the Los Angeles bureaucracy has moved slowly to implement these changes while continuing to funnel that money into youth prisons instead of investing it in brighter futures. The probation department budget continues to increase every year, with approximately $570 million allocated for operating juvenile halls and probation camps and probation supervision in the community.
Meanwhile, as California’s Division of Juvenile Justice shuts down and the young people who operated under its supervision are transferred to local authorities, L.A. County has still not allocated the resources necessary to create the necessary spaces and rehabilitative programming to accommodate their arrival.
It is time for Los Angeles to close down our cruel, traumatizing and barbaric old system of youth prisons once and for all and instead put that $1 million per child to good use. We can invest it in the system of community-based wraparound services, alternative education, recreational opportunities, mentoring and more that was laid out in the Youth Justice Reimagined report.
On July 1, the newly created Department of Youth Development is scheduled to come online. It is time for the Board of Supervisors to fully fund it, so that every youth in Los Angeles has access to the resources they need, and so that no child will be forced into the demoralizing cages that have made a mockery of the concept of “youth justice.”
We know that we have the resources to give our kids the support that they need — and we know that neither we nor they can afford to wait any longer.