L.A.'s Shockingly Archaic Treatment Of Its Juvenile Offenders

L.A. has long maintained an image in America as a progressive, cutting-edge, and trend-setting environment. So it should come as a huge shock that regarding the treatment of children in the juvenile justice system - Los Angeles may be the most backward major metropolitan area in the nation.
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Los Angeles has long maintained an image in America as a progressive, cutting-edge, and trend-setting environment. So it should come as a huge shock that regarding the treatment of its most vulnerable residents - children in the juvenile justice system - Los Angeles may be the most backward major metropolitan area in the nation.

Not only has L.A. led America in numbers of incarcerated youth for years, its county-run system of youth detention is so archaic, oppressive, and counter-productive, the U.S. Department of Justice has had to be called in for monitoring with the threat of possibly taking it over.

In addition to failing to rehabilitate the youth it was designed to serve, the system is also an enormous money drain as it houses many youth who could have instead been very effectively treated at home by proven therapeutic community programs and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Los Angeles is also spending vast amounts on a system that actually makes its residents less safe in the long run. While there are certainly some youth, who for public safety purposes, must be removed from the general population and hopefully turned-around, most incarcerated minors in Los Angeles should have never been locked up in the first place and actually only become more crime-prone from the experience.

The reality is that for decades, L.A. County youth detention camps and halls have failed to provide any real rehabilitation, have been laden with (pages and pages of federally documented) abuse and have unwittingly served as gang recruitment centers - virtual "crime academies" where troubled children instruct each other in all the wrong things. There is now evidence that serving time in an American juvenile prison can actually raise a child's likelihood of adult criminal behavior more than any other factor.

With that thought now in your head, now chew on this additional shocking fact: annual costs per child at Los Angeles County facilities are roughly triple that of a year at Harvard (room, board and tuition).

Los Angeles has long lacked the evidence-based community programs that have worked best in reducing recidivism in other cities around the nation -those where children remain with their families instead of incarcerated. Such programs typically include victim/offender mediation, which permits youth to make restitution. They also offer "diversion" services such as mental health and academic support, allowing charges to be dropped upon completion, providing an important fresh start. These programs are often referred to as "restorative justice-based", where the objective is to make all the affected parties "whole' again.

Now it is fact that youth arrest and incarceration rates nationwide have steadily declined since the late 1990s, including in Los Angeles. So why the need for these programs? The answer is that the County still locks up far too many kids. Not only has Los Angeles led the nation in this statistic for years, our nation leads the world (with China and India, incidentally, far behind us even though their populations are each quadruple ours).

Also, the reality is that a decline in arrests and incarceration does not necessarily mean rates of misbehavior have dropped proportionally; rather, it is more likely that much delinquency is simply being ignored by overwhelmed cash-strapped courts.

On the one hand, this has some plusses as it does keep kids out of a very broken system and from further harm. But on the other, if no community services are available, odds are many of those who do not outgrow their youthful indiscretions will still move further along the pipeline to adult prison. We know this because in localities where good programs abound, not only has there been the largest drop in arrests and incarceration rates, but also in measurable delinquent behavior.

With that knowledge, Centinela Youth Services, a national leader in therapeutic approaches for young offenders, created a new courthouse-located rehabilitative center funded by the Everychild Foundation, a non-profit organization. Arrested youth can prevent charges from being adjudicated by completing an intensive individualized program, including mental-health assessments, evidence-based therapies, academic support, and victim/offender mediation. Outgoing Judge Michael Nash of L.A. Juvenile Court has said, "There is no other program like this here - it saves courts time and costs. Most importantly, it saves lives of the most vulnerable youth."

To date, over 1,000 youth have been enrolled, 69% with successful completion. Of those who have completed the program, over 70% demonstrated markedly improved behavior as measured by pre/post assessment of risk factors (e.g. school/work challenges, physical health, stress levels and risk behaviors for infectious diseases, mental health, substance abuse, crime and violence) [1].

Building on this success, Everychild Foundation then approached Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck wondering if his officers could also divert youth directly off the streets to services, instead of waiting for cases to reach the courts. Studies show that the earlier a child can enter these programs, the better.

The result is the new Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program (JADP), initially piloted in two LAPD South Bureau police districts, funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant. Children aged 11 -17 who do not yet have a serious criminal record are eligible to participate. Also Centinela-operated, JADP is in such demand, it has already been expanded to other municipalities within the County as well as the Los Angeles School District.

And soon, County Probation will launch yet another new pilot set of services exclusively directed at first-time offenders.

But sadly and shockingly, all these programs combined will only serve a tiny fraction of the youth in need of services, and even though they could save the public billions, there has been next to no County funding for them. Private philanthropy and federal grants can only go so far, and those dollars are now running out. Over the years, the County has been very willing to spend vast amounts on methods that seem only to send kids further down the prison pipeline, but next to none to keep them from entering it in the first place.

So Los Angeles, very simply, must now step up to the plate. With a newly-reconstituted Board of Supervisors (having just replaced two termed-out members) which leads the County, there are great possibilities for reform. It is time to stop hemorrhaging public dollars, wasting lives and compromising community safety. For a metropolis that is considered so progressive in most other social matters, Los Angeles simply needs to get with it.

[1] GAIN Report from Centinela Youth Services, Inglewood, CA, December 2014

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