LA County Moves to Overhaul Its Juvenile Detention

After Party House 2

It’s easily arguable that American society isn’t very forgiving to people who have committed crimes. For Black people and people of color especially, it often seems like rehabilitation is a concept the criminal justice system accepts in theory—not so much in practice. It’s easily arguable that America is a nation that prioritizes punishment, not rehabilitation, for people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

In Los Angeles County, officials are taking steps in the right direction by gearing its justice system towards reform where it matters the most—with our youth.

From the Los Angeles Times:

After years of incremental reform, Los Angeles County is moving to dismantle the largest youth justice system in the country in favor of a “care-first” model that would look less like prison and would emphasize emotional support, counseling and treatment.

The plan calls for children and young adults who have committed crimes to be served in home-like settings, and includes 24/7 youth centers and support teams that establish relationships with young people who might otherwise be locked in facilities far from home.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first steps to transition juvenile probation to a proposed new Department of Youth Development, in a three-phase approach that will take at least five years. Similar approaches have been tried in San Francisco; Houston; New York City; King County, Wash.; and Oregon.

This is the kind of system that will take things like poverty, trauma and systemic bias into account before deciding a “juvenile delinquent” (I put it in quotes because I hate that term) is disposable.

“The current youth justice model in the county remains hyper-focused on punishment and forced accountability because that is simply the nature of any model rooted in the principles of probation and law enforcement systems,” Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas wrote in their motion. The board also denounced the “’tough on crime’ philosophy of the late 1980s and early 1990s,“ saying it “has been universally debunked by research from across many fields including neuroscience, psychology, and child development.”

Of course, at least one official of the “current youth justice model” took exception to the board’s characterization of his agency and suggested that what the supervisors want to do might not work.

More from the Times:

Interim Chief Probation Officer Ray Leyva, who was unavailable Tuesday for an interview, said in a letter to the board that he rejected the notion by advocates who he said want to “defund and discard” his agency and have focused much attention on its past weaknesses, rather than its “track record of recent reforms.”

He said there are substantial challenges ahead in carrying out the overhaul that youth advocates want to see, including a lack of county housing options and the lack of a robust network of community services and supports.

He also raised concerns about redirecting “substantial work from dedicated and committed county staff to private agencies, without sustainable infrastructures.”

The union that represents about 3,400 detention service officers has similar concerns.

I’m not going to lie: The activist in me can’t help but wonder if these juvenile detention officials are more worried about their jobs and the funding of their departments than they are about the wellbeing of the youth confined in their facilities.

After all, officials with the Justice Department spent six years investigating L.A. County detention centers after there were repeated reports of abuse, unsafe conditions and widespread civil rights violations in the county’s 19 probation camps.

Don’t get me wrong: There are certain people, even young people, in this world who present a real danger to the general public and probably need to spend their journeys toward rehabilitation locked up. In fact, Kuehl acknowledged that while still advocating for a kinder environment for offenders, according to the Times.

“Now, we will always have young people that need to be isolated from the community because they’re dangerous and it’s [best for] public safety,” Kuehl said. “So, there will be locked facilities, but I don’t believe that we want to see them look like prisons with barbed wire.”

Anyway, the new proposal—which the board approved unanimously—”calls for a gradual wind-down of the probation department’s juvenile operations and an initial $75 million investment in the Department of Youth Development in the next county budget, which is approved in June,” the Times reports.

The Bes

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