Last November, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors championed a sweeping proposal to transform its juvenile justice system, part of a newfound mission to provide “care first, jail last.”
The Youth Justice Reimagined Plan crafted by scores of community leaders included “safe and healing centers” to replace juvenile detention facilities. Rather than relying solely on arrest, incarceration and probation, teams of mediators, counselors and people with lived experience in the justice system would work in therapeutic settings with youth found breaking the law.
Youth advocates, empowered by nationwide protests and calls to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd, celebrated a victory in this vast expanse of the nation’s most populous state.
But on Monday, county officials dampened those dreams, committing to roughly one quarter of what the $75 million first phase of the plan would have required, and scaling back its scope. County CEO Fesia Davenport said previous cost estimates were too high and new laws would be required before the county could shift responsibilities from the existing probation department to the proposed Department of Youth Development.
Instead, the county has committed to spend $26.1 million to expand community-based services for youth as an alternative to arrest and detention, a number that includes $17.1 million in new funding from the Youth Justice Reimagined effort.
The Children’s Defense Fund-California’s senior policy associate Milinda Kakani and other activists have been pushing the county to launch far more expansive plans. They included launching the new Department of Youth Development in July, funding programs for young people to re-enter society after incarceration and providing them with “credible messenger” mentors who’ve been through the justice system themselves. Trained mediators would help handle disputes in some instances instead of police.
At Monday’s virtual board of supervisors meeting, Kakani and others expressed doubt about the county’s commitment to bold reform.
“The board has indicated that their priority is maintaining the status quo and that ‘care first, jail last’ is just a catchy slogan,” Kakani said.
According to the most recent census of youth held in two juvenile halls and six detention camps, there are fewer than 400 incarcerated youth ages 12 to 17 in Los Angeles County — down from 878 just two years ago. The more than 50% decline is a result of local policy changes and moving teens out of detention to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
Last year after working for nine months, a group of young people and their advocates, public defenders, probation officers, prosecutors and representatives of the juvenile court produced detailed recommendations for an entirely new system to serve youth offenders.
In November, Los Angeles County supervisors enthusiastically endorsed the first phase of the plan, which included a $75 million investment in a new youth development department which would eventually take over much of the functions probation offices have long handled.
L.A. County’s Probation Department supervises adults and juveniles at a cost of more than $1 billion a year. Despite the dramatic decline in the number of detained youth, the portion of that budget devoted to staff salaries and youth incarceration will grow this year to $410 million — a $10 million increase over last year.
As a result, youth advocates — who just months ago were elated by the prospect of systemic change — have spent weeks protesting outside government buildings.
“Please do not break your promise to young people most impacted by this school-to-jail pipeline,” Youth Justice Coalition organizer Emilio Zapién implored supervisors at Monday’s meeting.
Last week, Davenport’s office released a long-overdue report that identified the initial county investment in the Youth Justice Reimagined Plan at no more than $17.3 million in new funding. Those funds would be used for diversion countywide, shifting youth arrested for crimes into community-based programs. The goal is to avoid the harms of the juvenile justice system and the impact of youth arrest records whenever possible.
The CEO’s report detailed obstacles to creating the new Department of Youth Development, including a mismatch with state laws and government codes which restrict people outside probation departments from working with young people in the juvenile justice system.
In its report, the CEO's office also said it would seek more funding for the planned Department of Youth Development in September, and issue a plan about how to reduce staffing levels at juvenile halls and camps to better match the lower numbers of detained youth.
At least one of the members of the group that worked last year on overhauling the local juvenile justice system has long expressed concerns about the plan. Former longtime probation officer Edward Mundo told The Imprint in October that the expansive Youth Justice Reimagined Plan was implemented too quickly.
“If the board were to approve this and move forward, they’re doing it blindly and without an understanding of the degree of seriousness of issues that are going to come with it,” Mundo said.
Still, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who was instrumental in launching the reform effort last year, said establishing a “care first” model remains among her top priorities.
“It's a great start,” she said of the plan that is now moving forward, albeit in scaled-back form. “And I look forward to more work on that.”