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Through the Cradle to Prison Pipeline campaign, Children’s Defense Fund-California focuses on dismantling the pipeline to prison and instead putting young people on a path to career and college. Indeed, the goal is prevention and investment to provide youth with a healthy childhood and adolescence and a successful transition into productive adulthood. However, for young people that do become involved with the juvenile justice system, CDF-CA is committed to reforming our systems so that, instead of causing more harm and funneling young people toward the adult criminal justice system, juvenile justice departments and facilities are rehabilitative and meet the needs of young peoples. This includes investing in community-based alternatives to detention and incarceration and both improving and reducing our current juvenile justice facilities.
California has a long way to go to live up to the fulfillment of rehabilitating children in the juvenile justice system and supporting their healthy transition into adulthood. Despite declines in juvenile confinement over the last decade, California still has the 10th highest rate of juvenile incarceration in the nation (271 per 100,000) and the fifth highest White-Black racial disparity: Black children are incarcerated at 8.5 times the rate of White children.
There has been progress, though, particularly in reducing incarceration at the state level. Efforts to dramatically reduce if not dismantle the notoriously troubled state run Division of Justice (DJJ) and realign responsibilities to the counties have left fewer than a thousand young people now in DJJ facilities, down from 10,000 earlier in the decade. County and state agencies are now in a state of transition, as counties must manage this increased responsibility of supervising the vast majority of young people in the juvenile justice system, including those with more serious offenses and needs, while state governments must provide effective oversight and implementation. All of this is occurring during an economic period of shrinking budgets.
This transformation coupled with our economic crisis provides an opportunity for the state and particularly counties to re-think how they administer juvenile justice. Counties can simply no longer afford to funnel so many young people into the juvenile justice system and house them in toxic environments that focus on punishment at the expense of rehabilitation. Counties throughout the state will need to work to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system through preventive measures, diversion, and community based alternatives to detention and incarceration while improving facilities to meet the needs of young people and reduce recidivism.
The Los Angeles County Probation Department is responsible at any one time for the supervision of nearly 20,000 young people, almost 1,000 of which are detained in one of three juvenile halls and more than an additional 1,000 incarcerated in one of the county’s more than fifteen probation camps. As the country’s largest juvenile justice system, the LA County Probation Department has for a decade fallen under repeated scrutiny from county leadership, the media and outside agencies for incidents of abuse and neglect as well as failure to rehabilitate youth under its care.
This scrutiny has included repeated investigations from the Department of Justice as well as outside litigation around education programming provided in the camps. The Probation Department is on its fifth probation chief in just ten years; this lack of stable leadership has further undermined progress. LA County’s facilities are largely outdated, institutional, and prison-like in their design and feel, sleeping nearly 100 youth in one room with virtually no privacy. Programming is varied and often limited, and lack of coordination and integrated treatment between the various agencies working at the facilities undermines rehabilitation.
LA County’s struggle to effectively supervise and care for so many young people has statewide impact. As advocates push to fully realign juvenile justice responsibilities from the state to the counties, eyes look to big jurisdictions like LA when questioning whether they can do better with these young people. While there is general acceptance that holding youth closer to their communities is preferable, there is concern that counties with historically un-reform minded juvenile justice systems may do just as much if not more harm. Thus improving LA County’s system is critical, for the young people and their families involved first and foremost but also for statewide policy.
Rethinking our probation camps
LA County, through a mix of internal commitments and outside pressure like DOJ monitoring and settlement agreements, has begun to slowly reform its way of administering justice and providing rehabilitation to young people. There are various pilots and initiatives seeking to reduce the flow of young people into the system, create alternatives to incarceration; and improve the programming available to young people in the probation camps, including education. There is also new leadership that has expressed a commitment to doing things differently. Still, the current facilities are largely out of line with what is understood to be best practices, and CDF-CA is committed to working with other advocates and the county to bring necessary changes to our probation camps. CDF-CA is working toward a camp system that is both smaller and more conducive to positive youth development. CDF-CA is doing this through the following work:
Data Tracking and Accountability
There is currently little data available on the experiences and outcomes of the nearly 20,000 children under LA County’s Probation Department’s care. Many departments in the county have antiquated data systems and insufficient resources designated toward data collection and evaluation. Additionally, different agencies – including Probation, Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), and Department of Mental Health – are charged with collecting and tracking different pieces of information, fragmenting data collection and tracking efforts. As a result, limited information is consistently collected, aggregated and analyzed on probation youth experiences, and even less is shared publicly. We do know, though, that for over a decade the Probation Department has fallen under repeated scrutiny for incidents of abuse and neglect as well as lack of rehabilitation for youth under the care. Thus while we have reason to believe probation-involved youth are not faring well, it makes it difficult to know, outside of anecdotal evidence, in what exact ways, hindering advocacy efforts geared toward improving the well-being of these high need children. CDF-CA is working collaboratively to better understand the experiences of probation-involved youth and make recommendations around how data systems can be improved to support more effective treatment of probation-involved youth.
Addressing the Challenges of Reentry
With the largest juvenile justice system in the country, Los Angeles County officials are concerned about the programming juveniles receive while they are incarcerated, as well as the services to support successful reintegration into society after release. Michelle Newell and Angelica Salazar, former masters candidates at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and now employees at the Children’s Defense Fund working on youth justice policy, prepared a report on juvenile reentry for LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office in 2010.
In December 2010, CDF founder and president Marian Wright Edelman joined Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in a press conference to discuss the current state of juvenile reentry and policies to meet the educational, health and substance abuse needs of probation-involved youth, and further dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas then introduced this report as a motion to the Board of Supervisors in an effort to shed a light on the high recidivism rate and improve the path that youth take when reentering their communities. The report's recommendations included things like strengthening and beginning earlier the planning for a youth's transition back into the community, ensuring continuity in care to make sure youth do not experience educational or health disruptions, and improving the data collection and analysis capability of the Probation Department.
View Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Mrs. Edelman's press release, Ridley-Thomas' motion to the Board of Supervisors, the executive summary of the report, or the full report.
Due in large part to recommendations in the report, the county subsequently established its first Juvenile Reentry Council, headed by Judge Donna Groman and the CEO’s office. The Juvenile Reentry Council is tasked with coordinating reentry services for the county, ensuring a smoother reentry process for young people leaving LA County’s camps and halls, and improving data collection around reentry. CDF-CA is a member of the reentry council and the subcommittee on data collection.
Adolescent brain development research has helped us understand the ways that youth are fundamentally different from adults. With the prefrontal lobe of the brain still developing throughout the teenage years, adolescents have more difficulty processing information, making logical in-the-moment decisions, weighing long-term consequences, and avoiding peer pressure. Given this research in adolescent brain development, policymakers and even the Supreme Court have recognized that youth are less culpable than adults for their actions and more likely to be rehabilitated. The Children’s Defense Fund – CA believes strongly that policies around incarceration and sentencing should reflect these developmental differences, and that youth should be kept out of the adult criminal justice system and given the opportunity for rehabilitation.
Supporting an End to Juvenile Life Without the Possibility of Parole
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences young people to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. In California, approximately 300 youth have been given this sentence – a sentence to die in prison for mistakes you made during adolescence. According to Human Rights Watch estimates, a majority of these young people (59 percent) were first time offenders, and almost half (45 percent) were convicted of murder but were not the ones who actually committed the murder.
To end this inhumane practice, Children’s Defense Fund-California advocated for several years for California policymakers to pass Senate Bill 9, which creates an opportunity for individuals with this sentence who have shown they have rehabilitated to petition for a reduced sentence. As CDF founder and president Mrs. Edelman noted in a press release on Senate Bill 9: "Too many children, especially those of color, find themselves in the pipeline to prison, born into poverty and failing schools and dangerous circumstances they can neither escape nor successfully navigate. Senate Bill 9 provides the possibility of parole for young people who have shown they deserve a second chance and the opportunity to become productive members of our communities."
In September 2012, California legislators passed Senate Bill 9, and Governor Brown subsequently signed it into law. CDF-CA applauds this step forward, and we remain committed to more extensive sentencing reform.