LOS ANGELES – As Gov. Gavin Newsom moves to close California’s youth prison system, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors began planning Tuesday for a shift of juvenile offenders from state to county supervision.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored a motion calling the existing Youth Justice Work Group to come up with strategies for supervising what will likely be hundreds of youth charged with more serious crimes than those committed by minors currently in county juvenile halls and camps.
The motion also calls for increasing community-based alternatives to detention.
“The closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Los Angeles County, and we must begin planning immediately to ensure we are ready,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Connecting this planning effort with the work of restructuring and reimagining the county’s juvenile justice system, already underway, is an opportunity to ensure a rehabilitative model for youth who may otherwise be sentenced to adult prison.”
Newsom’s 2020-21 budget proposal includes closing the DJJ, which runs California’s three youth prisons and one state fire camp. In March, the governor halted new detentions to state juvenile facilities to curb the spread of the coronavirus. His budget proposal would make the moratorium permanent as of Jan. 1, when youthful offenders would become the responsibility of county probation departments.
“Long before the COVID-19 crisis, the county was moving toward a more rehabilitative, treatment-focused approach for the whole area of juvenile justice,” Kuehl said. “Research demonstrates that such an approach is more effective, and our goal for all our young people is to set them on a path toward a healthy and productive life.”
The Youth Justice Work Group, established by the board last summer, is working on recommendations for a new approach, including potentially moving youth out of the Probation Department. The shift toward a more rehabilitative- based approach comes as the number of minors held in county juvenile halls and camps has declined dramatically over the last several years.
Ridley-Thomas pointed to a need for more funding as the county prepares to take over the state’s role. Efforts will also need to be made to guard against unintended consequences, such as increasing the number of young people tried as adults.
The motion was revised to make clear that reopening closed juvenile facilities would only be done as a “last resort.”
One juvenile justice advocate pointed to the complexities in planning for the shift.
“DJJ closure has been a long time coming and serving youth close to their communities is a more effective and humane practice. But planning for it will be a complex endeavor, especially with the troubled history of L.A. County’s camps and halls,” said Patricia Soung, consultant for the Youth Justice Workgroup and director of youth justice policy at the Children’s Defense Fund — California.