The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to work toward ending the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive young people, part of a state and national effort that is gaining momentum.
The motion introduced by Supervisor Hilda Solis directs county leaders to apply for a new California initiative that awards funding and technical support to four counties aiming to end the incarceration of girls.
Solis called it “a great opportunity,” that supervisors should not pass up.
Board of Supervisors Chair Janice Hahn expressed her support during Tuesday’s meeting, stating that “this motion will allow us to double down on our commitment to reexamine the entire system of locking up girls.”
As first reported by The Imprint, last month the state’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration and the Vera Institute of Justice announced the “Ending Girls’ Incarceration Initiative.” Under a competitive application process described by the state as “unprecedented,” counties can now apply for grants of up to $250,000 accompanied by technical support to phase out the incarceration of girls. Four counties will be awarded the grants in March.
The state grant emerges from work in Santa Clara County, which has been successful in recent years in shifting girls and gender-expansive youth out of detention settings such as camps and juvenile halls.
Between 2018 and 2020, the number of girls admitted to juvenile detention facilities in Santa Clara County dropped by 58%, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, and as of April 2022, the average number of girls in the county juvenile hall during the previous year was between zero and one.
Santa Clara County’s approach, conducted in partnership with the New York-based Vera Institute, will guide similar efforts statewide — providing the most vulnerable girls with community-based support, while more closely evaluating whether they pose an actual public safety threat. The goal is to divert as many as possible before they ever reach juvenile hall or even a courtroom — and for those who need closer supervision, serving them in family-based settings whenever possible.
According to California’s Office of Youth and Community Restoration — which is now headed by former Santa Clara County juvenile court Judge Katherine Lucero, who helped launch the local initiative — most girls are incarcerated for low-level offenses.
“Evidence tells us that the challenges that most commonly drive the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth — such as sexual abuse or commercial sexual exploitation, family conflict, and housing instability — are effectively addressed through gender-responsive programs that are lacking in many communities in California and nationwide,” state officials wrote in a press release last month.
Los Angeles County’s application for the state grant would be significant, as it is the most populous county in the state and nation.
The Board of Supervisors has pledged to decrease the number of girls in lockups in the past, although the number of young girls and young women has swelled in spite of those pledges. In 2021, county leaders called on staff to create a plan that focused on decreasing the number of girls in probation camps and halls. Since then, however, the numbers have increased.
In November 2021, there were 346 youth in detention facilities in Los Angeles County, including 35 girls or gender-expansive youth. As of Jan. 30, that number increased to 508 incarcerated youth overall and 53 girls and gender-expansive youth. Of those, 37 were in the juvenile hall and 16 were at Dorothy Kirby Center and Camp Scott.
“Simply put, I am disappointed,” Supervisor Solis said in response to those statistics.
“Regardless of whether the county gets the grant, there is still a mandate for us to move forward.”— L.A. COUNTY SUPERVISOR HILDA SOLIS
Her motion, approved at Tuesday’s meeting, is similar to one the board passed in November 2021. Whether or not the county is awarded the state grant, it requires county leaders to work on moving girls out of detention. In 30 days, the chief probation officer,the executive director of the Probation Oversight Commission and the Office of the Public Defender must provide a written report to the Board of Supervisors outlining the steps they’ve taken to end the incarceration of girls and young women. Similar reports must be produced every 60 days thereafter, with status updates, timelines and objectives, and a running census on the number of girls and gender-expansive youth held in county detention facilities.
County leaders will also have to identify any trends that are contributing to the increase in incarcerated youth, and identify how to address them.
“Regardless of whether the county gets the grant, there is still a mandate for us to move forward,” Solis said.
Supervisor Hahn pointed to allegations of sexual abuse in Los Angeles County youth detention facilities, underscoring the urgent need to empty them.
In lawsuits filed early last year, dozens of women who were incarcerated as teens over the past three decades allege that Los Angeles County probation employees raped, molested or sexually harassed them at youth detention facilities and camps. Additional court documents filed in December allege the number of assaulted youth is even higher, some alleging abuse as recently as 2019. All told, 300 people have signed on to the lawsuit, The Los Angeles Times reported late last year.
“They made me sick to my stomach,” Hahn said during Tuesday’s meeting, describing when she first learned of the allegations. “It’s disappointing that since we started this, that number of incarcerated girls has increased, but I think this motion again will renew our focus and effort.”
In an emailed statement to The Imprint, a Los Angeles County Probation Department spokesperson said the agency supports the decision to apply for the grant, and “is committed to the decarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth. We are dedicated to providing these young people with the appropriate resources and services to guide their lives productively. Providing prevention, diversion and restoration for this vulnerable population is of the utmost importance.”
The department remains dedicated, the spokesperson added, to collaborating with “county partners, the Juvenile Courts and law enforcement to provide alternatives to incarceration and assistance in the transformation of the lives of those we serve.”
Los Angeles County has until the end of the month to apply for the statewide grant. Counties have to submit their application materials by 7 p.m. on Feb. 28, after which the Vera Institute will review applications and interview county leaders through mid-March. The selected counties will be announced by March 24, according to state officials.
This story has been updated to include comments from the Los Angeles County Probation Department that arrived after the story was published.