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What is “Voluntary” Juvenile Probation? And Does it Help or Harm LA County’s Kids? – by Jeremy Loudenback

September 15th, 2016 by witnessla


The consistent decline in juvenile crime, along with study after study showing that many kids do far better in community-based programs rather than in county lock-ups, has led to a large drop in population in LA County’s juvenile halls and camps, along with a significant downturn in the number of youth on court-ordered probation.

There is, however, one youth program run by Los Angeles County Probation Department, the population of which is radically on the rise.

It is a school-based program that is informally known as voluntary probation, and it has flown largely under the radar.

In the story below, reporter Jeremy Loudenback, the Child Trauma Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, examines this little-known but heavily funded LA County Probation strategy that some child advocates say is a misuse of millions of dollars in state funds, which would be better allocated to community intervention programs with data-backed ability to help kids stay out of the justice system.

Instead, say youth advocates, kids in need of tutoring, mentoring, counseling, sports programs, and other kinds of positive activities and alternatives that are known to help adolescents steer their lives in a healthy direction, are—for all intents and purposes—on probation, reporting to probation officers side-by-side with other probation kids, except without a judicial order.

“Most of these kids think they really are on probation,” a source familiar with the program told us. “And their friends think they’re on probation too.”

Also of concern is the fact that the money to pay for this so-called voluntary probation comes out of the approximately $31 million that LA County receives yearly from the state that is specifically designated for local programs aimed at keeping kids who’ve tangled with the juvenile justice system from returning, and to help kids at risk of winding up in the system from entering it in the first place.

Yet, the largest chunk of that $31 million is not paying for juvenile programing that has been proven to produce measurably positive outcomes. According to probation department documents that WitnessLA has obtained, the biggest piece of the monetary pie is going to help to pay the salaries and benefits for the county’s juvenile probation officers—salaries that are reportedly meant to be paid out of other pockets of Probation’s $830 million yearly budget.

WitnessLA will have more on this issue in the coming months. But Loudenback’s excellent report below is the essential place to start.

This is also, by the way, one of a number of important juvenile justice issues that we hope the new, soon-to-be-selected Chief of Los Angeles County Probation will explore with a critical eye.

So get comfortable, and start reading.


by Jeremy Loudenback

While Los Angeles County has seen a historic decline of the number of youth
in its juvenile camps and halls in recent years, a “voluntary probation” program run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department has dramatically expanded during that time, alarming some advocates.

The arrangement allows probation officers to work with at-risk youth in schools with no prior history of involvement with the justice system, as long as their families sign off.

There are nearly 3,600 youth on voluntary probation, according to a data snapshot recently provided by the Probation Department.

According to RAND data released last month, the number of youth on voluntary probation has grown by nearly 40 percent over the past two years. And since 2013-2014, the number of youth on voluntary probation in the school-based supervision program has exceeded the number of youngsters in the program who have been arrested and are on formal probation.


The spike has prompted advocates to question why probation officers are now so often a part of the lives of youth with academic problems, and what the role of probation should be.

“Even if a young person needs tutoring, we should be asking whether a probation officer providing or doing the referral for tutoring is really what we should be asking probation officers to do,” said Patricia Soung, a senior staff attorney with the Children’s Defense Fund-California. “This is a significant shift in population, and it’s not apparent to me that there’s been a corresponding change on the department’s side to accommodate the new demographics.”

At an April meeting of the county’s children commission, the Probation Department first released preliminary data about these youngsters, known as “236 youth” because of the state statute that allows the Probation Department to work with them.

That law — known as Welfare and Institutions Code 236 — allows probation departments in California to “engage in activities designed to prevent juvenile delinquency.” The law permits probation officers to provide services to any youth in the community, not just those being supervised by a probation officer as part of a court order.

The money that funds the school-based supervision program is allocated from the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA). In 2001, the state started doling out $100 million a year in JJCPA money to counties for prevention and intervention services aimed at young people.

Los Angeles County’s share last year came to about $30 million, and the Probation Department has invested a substantial portion of those funds for its work in schools. More than 100 deputy probation officers have been installed at schools across the county, including at 58 middle and high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Youth who are on voluntary probation — the so-called 236 youth — check in with officers at school, alongside youth who are in the system already, as part of court-ordered probation because of an arrest.

Youth can only be placed on voluntary probation with the consent of a parent, who must sign a waiver and contract.

Of the 3,590 youth on voluntary probation in L.A. County in March, more than 80 percent were referred to the school-based supervision program for school-related issues such as poor school attendance, grades or behavior.

“If we know that almost 80 percent of reasons for referral are something related to attendance, grades or school behavior-related, then I really question whether probation case management is what that young person really needs versus school intervention,” Soung said. “The practice is counter to research that shows probation supervision should really focus on high-risk, high-need youth.”

The remaining 20 percent were referred to the program for being unmotivated, having anger issues, substance abuse problems and parental conflict, among other challenges.

While at school, the 236 youth receive many services not usually associated with probation. Nearly 31 percent — or 1,106 youth — received tutoring services from probation officers. About 18 percent received gang prevention services, while 11 percent were able to access family counseling.

Probation Department Deputy Chief Felicia Cotton says that the school-based supervision program is a purely preventative effort that doesn’t cause youth to end up in the system. Voluntary probation, she says, is an important tool that the department can offer parents who fear their wayward children are on the brink of getting into real trouble.

“A lot of parents come to us because they see their kid on the verge of hanging out with the wrong crowd, flirting with gang activity, not going school,” Cotton said. “The parent doesn’t know what to do. They’re afraid. They come to us.”

Cotton says that the program has made the on-campus probation officers a “hot commodity” with school officials, who see it as a valuable resource to address truancy and other school-related issues.

Because data about 236 youth is not logged into the probation department’s case-management system, the increased number of youth on voluntary probation has escaped notice from some in the county’s juvenile justice community. More important, the lack of data around these youth has made it difficult to evaluate whether it has been successful in preventing at-risk youth from becoming more entangled in the county’s sprawling juvenile-justice system.

“If probation is going to focus time, effort and resources on a 236 population, then it is incumbent upon them to evaluate the impact of that,” said Denise Herz, a California State University, Los Angeles researcher who has studied outcomes for young people in the county’s juvenile justice system. “They’re not doing that and they should.”


Beyond these concerns about data, the department’s investment in school-based supervision raises larger questions about the role of probation during a time of significant demographic change, an issue that other counties across the state are also grappling with.

Youth arrest rates have plummeted in California since the mid-1990s. Juvenile arrests for violent offenses declined by 70 percent across the state from 1995 to 2015, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

In Los Angeles County, the juvenile arrest rate in Los Angeles County has dropped by 60 percent from 2010 to 2014, and 30 percent since 2012.

Over that time, the Probation Department has also seen a stark decline in the population of youth at camps and halls. The average daily population of its 13 juvenile camps is 600, with 700 youth in juvenile halls and approximately 10,400 youth under supervision. This is a far cry from more than a decade ago, when more than 30,000 youth were on probation and 4,000 youth cycled through the county’s detention facilities.

With L.A. county currently searching for a new probation chief and hoping to implement a therapeutic approach at its still-troubled juvenile halls, the department’s shift to voluntary probation is leading some to question how probation services should best be deployed, both in L.A. and across the state.

As probation departments manage smaller caseloads, will they re-invent themselves into different functions — such as case management for community-based services — that have more in common with social services than public safety?

For now, Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro hopes the department will share more information at a probation commission meeting in October to address lingering concerns.

“If the supervision is a tool that is being used to effectively prevent penetration into the juvenile justice system, that’s important,” Yamashiro said. “If on the other hand, the data reveals that it’s not helping to divert youth away from the juvenile justice system and it ends up a way to increase or capture more youth in the system, that’s something we want to know, too.”

Jeremy Loudenback is the Child Trauma Editor for the Chronicle of Social Change, where Loudenback’s story—and the accompanying graphics—originally appeared.

Posted in juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | 1 Comment »

Kids Penalized (and Even Locked-Up) for Inability to Pay Juvenile Justice Fees

September 1st, 2016 by Taylor Walker

A state-by-state analysis by Juvenile Law Center of costs levied against justice-system-involved kids and their families reveals a system that pushes poor families into serious financial strain and debt, and pushes kids further into the justice system.

These costs include court expenses—like witness fees, transportation, cost of prosecution, and cost of court operations—public defender fees (even for indigent defendants), probation supervision costs, money for participation in diversion programs, child support to the state, fees for mental health treatment, health care, and rehabilitative programming, the cost of GPS monitoring, and more. Courts in all states can impose restitution charges on juveniles.

Using JLC’s interactive maps, you can see what fees and fines states impose on kids and their families. (For example, California passes four justice system costs—not including restitution—on to youth and their parents. New York appears to only charge restitution.)

In addition to analyzing state statutes and other data, JLC researchers surveyed 183 people across the nation—most of whom were attorneys and other professionals working with justice-system-involved kids. The surveyed group also included over a dozen family members of kids in the justice system, as well as a handful of former youthful offenders.

Respondents to survey questions from JLC researchers reported that, in a majority of states, when kids fail to pay these fines and fees, they can be locked up in juvie camps and detention centers (and kids already in facilities may be locked up longer), kids’ cases can stay open longer, youth and families face more court visits, are unable to get their records expunged, and face civil judgements. Survey participants told researchers that these high costs often pushed their families into debt.

“Every day, we hear elected officials talking about racial injustice, mass incarceration, and the need for criminal justice reform,” said Jessica Feierman, Associate Director at Juvenile Law Center and report author. “This report identifies one key strategy to address those problems: eliminating or reducing the financial costs of juvenile court involvement on youth and their families.”

In fact, researchers found that these financial penalties actually led to increased recidivism and racial disparities. “Their inability to pay often leads to additional charges, extended probation, or additional punishments, taking them deeper into the justice system,” said criminologists Alex Piquero and Wesley Jennings.

There are several local jurisdictions making welcome changes to bring equity to their juvenile court systems. One of those trailblazing jurisdictions is Alameda County, CA.

Nearly every one of California’s 58 counties charge families for kids’ juvenile justice system involvement. In March, after UC Berkeley researchers revealed the significant burden these fees—which, in Alameda, include GPS monitoring, community supervision, nights in juvenile hall, and more—place on low-income families, Alameda County suspended the fees for its residents. The Berkeley report found that these fees were adding up to an average $2,000 per case, with many totals much higher. One survey respondent reported that many single moms of justice-system-involved kids “have difficulty scraping together $10 to $15 dollars out of their monthly budget to pay on these fees, fines, and costs.”

The report also highlights reform efforts in Washington state, where many of the fees and fines have been eliminated, and judges consider kids’ ability to pay other debts and restitution.

A bill introduced in California by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) would have eliminated administrative fees for kids locked up or placed on probation statewide, but the bill died in committee.

The JLC report calls for counties and states to stop gouging youth and their families in order to fund their court systems, and urges the prioritization of restitution payments that go straight to victims and are within kids’ ability to pay.

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

After a Consent Decree Is Lifted, CA DJJ Still Failing Locked-Up Kids

August 30th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


Just six months after the state Division of Juvenile Justice was released from a 12-year consent decree over violence, gang problems, a spate of suicides, and other major issues in the state’s juvie detention facilities, the DJJ still fails to protect locked-up kids and lacks adequate mental health care services, according to a report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).

Back in 2003, following a wave of media reports that kids held in the DJJ’s three facilities—Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, and the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility and N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, CA—were experiencing physical and sexual abuse, joining gangs, and committing suicide, the law firm Prison Law Office sued the California Youth Authority (which later became the DJJ). The Alameda County Superior Court of California placed CYA/DJJ under a consent decree requiring the adoption of six remedial plans to improve safety within the facilities, physical and mental health treatment, sex behavior treatment, disabilities services, and education systems.

The Superior Court freed the DJJ from the lawsuit (Farrell v. Kernan) in February of this year, saying that the state had fulfilled most of the reform requirements. But major safety and health care problems persist within the detention centers.

Despite the fact that the daily population in the three DJJ-run facilities has dropped 30% between 2011-2015, youth-on-youth injuries have jumped by 86%. And while there have been fewer uses of more serious force—which the report defines as physical, chemical, and mechanical force—against locked-up kids between from 2011-2015, lesser uses of force—like foam batons and projectile sting-balls—have increased by 75%.

After representing a young defendant locked in a DJJ facility, criminal defense attorney Amy Morton said the DJJ is guilty of “downplaying the reality of the daily violence to which the wards are exposed, and ignoring the environment of fear that permeates the institution.”

Following the end of the consent decree in February, the placement of kids in restrictive units—which greatly reduce out-of-cell time and privileges, and are often employed for punishment purposes when kids’ behavior is deemed “aggressive”—has doubled. Not only are kids being placed in restrictive housing more often, kids in the general population are not receiving the mental health care they need. When a court-appointed mental health care expert shined a light on deficiencies in the mental health care provided to kids in DJJ facilities in 2015, DJJ responded by transferring kids needing “acute” mental health care to adult facilities for treatment.

Another unchecked problem in the state lock-ups—one that was supposed to be solved by the consent decree—is gang influence. In 2012, national youth gang expert Dr. Cheryl Maxson found that the environment within the three facilities led to kids joining gangs “early in their stay,” or becoming even more involved in gangs if they were already affiliated. These problems have persisted beyond the end of the consent decree, CJCJ researchers found: “In failing to heed recommendations from experts and rejecting evidence-based gang intervention strategies, DJJ has allowed gangs to remain powerfully influential.”

The report calls for increased data reporting in order to promote “transparency and escalated monitoring of California’s youth corrections system, especially in the areas of safety and mental health” in the DJJ’s post-consent decree era.

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

Probation Officials Report Spike in Force in LA County’s Juvenile Halls

August 18th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


According to probation officials, who were asked to report to the LA County Probation Commission about how often force was used on the kids housed in the county’s three juvenile halls, such force incidents have risen sharply since the beginning of the year.

Both the members of the Probation Commission and the LA County Board of Supervisors have asked Probation higher-ups to come up with data on the agency’s force incidents in its juvenile facilities.

Earlier this month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to review three years of “critical incidents” that have taken place in the county’s juvenile halls and probation camps. The motion, written by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, also requests information on how internal investigations of such force incidents are handled and how staff are disciplined following critical and non-critical incidents.

The pressure on Probation rose after WitnessLA broke the story of the alleged beating of an unresisting 17-year-old by staff members at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

We also reported a second alleged force incident that reportedly occurred at the county’s Central Juvenile Hall.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell broke the news about the information made public at last Thursday’s Probation Commission. Here’s a clip from her story:

Overall, monthly use of force incidents increased by 85%, from 55 to 102, at the three county-run juvenile halls — Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights, Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar — from January to July, statistics released Thursday by the L.A. County Probation Department show.

At Los Padrinos, the number of reported incidents rose from 12 in January to 31 in July. At Central Juvenile Hall, the number increased from 20 in January to 39 in July; and from 23 to 32 at the Barry J. Nidorf facility.

Each camp holds about 200 youths awaiting court action in their cases or transfer to other facilities.

The total number of force incidents remained relatively stable early in 2016 and dipped slightly in March, but spiked in June and July.

Probation officials who presented the statistics at a probation commission meeting Thursday said any time a staffer places hands on a youth, including to break up a fight between minors, a use-of-force report is triggered.

Department spokeswoman Kerri Webb said there could be “a variety of reasons” for the overall increase.

“While we do regularly review these incidents, we’re assessing this specific information to identify the reasons for the fluctuations,” she said in an email. “It’s too soon to know now what the results of the analysis are.”

Posted in juvenile justice, Probation | 1 Comment »

CA’s SB 1052: the Fight Over Children’s Miranda Rights

August 18th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

We have reported in the past about the issue of children and Miranda rights.
In particular we’re following California’s SB 1052, a bill that would restrict the way law enforcement officers can interrogate kids during a criminal investigation, and would require youth under the age of 18 to consult with legal counsel before they waive their constitutional rights.

(Here for example, is the story we ran recently by Jeremy Loudenback about the issue and the proposed bill.)

Currently in California, children—–no matter how young— can waive their Miranda rights, whether they understand what that choices means or not.

We will continue to track the bill’s progress, of course, but in the meantime, we thought you’d be interested in the video above, which was released by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday. It is informative, and includes excerpts from a real interrogation of a 13-year-old who confessed to a murder he didn’t commit and was convicted of that murder. He spent three years locked up until the conviction was overturned by another court.

It is also worth looking at this 2011 NPR story about another coerced—and false—confession of a teenager, which kept the teenage girl in lock-up for three years awaiting trial before she was ultimately released. This second attorney-less interview takes place in Massachusetts, but it applies directly to the issues being discussed in California.

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

LA County Supes Vote to Investigate Abuse Allegations Within Juvenile Lock-Ups

August 3rd, 2016 by Taylor Walker

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to review three years of “critical incidents” that have taken place in the county’s juvenile halls and probation camps.

The Supervisors were alerted to allegations of probation staff abuse against kids within the county’s juvenile facilities after WitnessLA broke a story about an incident in April at a juvenile hall in Sylmar involving the alleged beating of a non-combative 17-year-old housed at the facility by four probation staff, while a fifth, a supervisor, watched. The beating incident was captured on video by a camera installed in the teen’s room.

Last week, WLA reported on a second alarming incident—this one at Central Juvenile Hall in May. A county employee witnessed a senior Detention Services Officer roughly handling a physically small 14-year-old who had already been restrained on the ground. When the boy said that the DSO was hurting him, the officer yanked the boy up by the back of his sweatshirt, reportedly causing the boy to choke. The teen retaliated by calling the DSO the N-word. According to the witness’s account, things spiraled from there.

With three juvenile halls and thirteen probation camps, Los Angeles County is home to the largest juvenile justice system in the nation. Ridley-Thomas says the reported staff abuses “underscore that more reforms are needed to protect young people and promote institutional accountability. The County’s response to these occurrences can be just as significant over time as the events themselves.”

Tuesday’s motion—which Supe. Ridley-Thomas read in during last week’s board meeting—directs the County CEO to coordinate with the interim Chief Probation Officer, Director of the Dept. of Mental Health, and the Director of the Dept. of Health Services, and return to the board in 45 days with a report that includes Probation’s policies and procedures for reporting incidents like the ones that occurred at the two juvenile halls, an exact definition of what constitutes a “critical incident” versus a “non-critical” incident (and how probation staff make that determination), whether the department’s policies and protocols address the underlying causes of the conflicts between kids and probation staff, and what kind of medical attention and trauma-informed care is provided to youth—both before and in response to an incident.

“Trauma-informed, timely responses that emphasize healing, coordination, and accountability should be the norm and the protocol, not the exception,” Ridley-Thomas said in the motion.

The motion also requests information on how internal investigations are handled and how staff are disciplined following critical and non-critical incidents.

Then, within 90 days, the county’s Auditor-Controller, in coordination with the Interim Chief Probation Officer, the Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Attorney of the Office of the Independent Monitor, the Director of the Office of Child Protection, and County Counsel will report back to the board with an analysis of three years of critical incidents that have occurred within the juvenile camps and halls.

“It is a priority of the Board of Supervisors that we do all that we can to make sure those who are in our custody and care are treated as they should be, consistent with the law, and with the basic principles and practices of decency,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | No Comments »

California Bill Says a 10-Year-Old Cannot Waive Miranda Rights – by Jeremy Loudenback

August 3rd, 2016 by Taylor Walker


by Jeremy Loudenback

Early one morning in 2011, a 10-year-old Riverside boy named Joseph woke up, went downstairs and grabbed a .357 revolver from his parents’ bedroom closet.

He walked over to the living-room couch where his white supremacist father was sleeping off a night of drinking and shot him in the head.

“I shot dad,” the boy told his stepmother minutes later.

Alone in a patrol car later, Joseph again admitted to the grisly killing. He told the officer that he had been physically and emotionally abused by his father, a leader of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. The night before, he said, Joseph’s father had threatened to take out all the smoke detectors in the home and burn the house down while the family slept.

As they drove to the police station, Joseph was worried that his sisters would be angry with him.

In 2013, then 12-year-old Joseph was found guilty of second-degree murder. At the end of a high-profile case that attracted lots of media attention, he was sentenced to seven years in juvenile prison.

But during interrogation, Joseph was permitted to waive his Miranda rights and to confess to the murder, despite a history of abuse at the hands of his parents as well as pronounced developmental issues.

When a police detective asked Joseph if he understood his right to remain silent, the 10-year-old replied that he did.

“Yes, that means I have the right to remain calm,” Joseph said.

Because no lawyer was present during the interrogation, the case sparked a legal appeal to the California Supreme Court.

In a four-to-three decision, California’s Supreme Court denied Joseph’s petition for review, leading Human Rights Watch, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the Juvenile Law Center to file petitions to the United States Supreme Court to review the case.


In the wake of the Joseph H. case, as it is known, the California legislature is considering a bill that would place restrictions on how law enforcement officers can interrogate children and youth during a criminal investigation.

Under Senate Bill (SB) 1052, minors interrogated by the police would be required to speak with a lawyer before they could to waive their Miranda rights. Currently minors like Joseph are allowed to waive these rights even if they are too young or don’t understand what they mean. The bill would also provide guidance to courts about assessing statements given to the police by minors.

This is an auspicious year for Miranda rights. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Miranda v. Arizona required police to inform suspects in custody that they have the right to remain silent and the right to consult with a lawyer before submitting to police interrogation. In 2011’s J.D.B v North Carolina case, the Supreme Court found that juveniles should receive expanded Miranda rights. But many now wonder if this was enough, and if there should be special provisions for children as young as Joseph.

Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has often ruled that children should be regarded differently under the law, in large part because of research on the socio-emotional and cognitive capacities of the adolescent brain. A developing brain, experts say, prevents youth from understanding the consequences of their actions and makes them susceptible to peer pressure and other forms of coercion.

But in the Joseph H. case, California courts deemed Joseph’s waiver of his Miranda rights was “knowing, intelligent and voluntary,” a legal standard that must be met for confessions to be admissible in court. This is the first time the state’s courts have upheld the waiver of Miranda rights for a child as young as age 10.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law who has followed the Joseph H. case, feels the California court missed an opportunity to decide the age at which a child should be able to speak to a police officer without a lawyer or other friendly adult being present, such as a parent.

“You don’t let a 10-year-old make any legal decision, let alone one with potentially enormous consequences in waiving a constitutional right,” Chemerinsky said.

Introduced by California State Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), SB 1052 would address the difference between adults and children by mandating that any child or youth have a conversation with a lawyer before a law enforcement officer would be able to question them. The attorney would be charged with making sure the minor understood their Miranda rights and the potential consequences of waiving them.

The bill has made it through the state Senate and is now moving through the Assembly. If it passes a vote before the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, it could soon land on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in children and adolescents, juvenile justice | No Comments »

California Prosecutors’ Rising Use of “Direct File” & How It Harms Kids of Color…Transparency in Child Abuse Near-Fatalities…and a Teen Transforms His Life

June 14th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

While the number of California kids arrested for felonies dropped 55% between 2003 and 2014, the number of kids transferred to adult court (directly filed by prosecutors) rose 23% during the same years, according to a collaborative report from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and the National Center for Youth Law. The data suggests that there’s no discernible relationship between direct files and and youth felony crime rates. During the same decade, the number of judicial transfer hearings (where judges decide whether to send kids to adult court) dropped 69%. At the same time, more kids are being held in lock-ups during their trials, rather than being released, despite the drip in transfer hearings.

Today in California, there are three ways kids can be prosecuted in the adult justice system. In the first, a judicial transfer hearing, a judge considers the case particulars, including the kid’s background and other circumstances, and adheres to a set of criteria to decide whether the youth is “fit” for the juvenile system. Among these criteria are the severity of the offense, any prior involvement with the justice system and previous attempts at rehabilitation, and the juvenile’s level of “criminal sophistication.” A judge usually takes about six months to make a decision.

In a direct file decision, a prosecutor usually has 48 hours to decide whether to file charges against a kid in adult court, without all of the background information reviewed during a judicial transfer hearing. The direct file to adult court becomes mandatory if the prosecutor says the child committed a crime that, if committed by an adult, would carry a death penalty or life-without-parole sentence. And in discretionary direct file cases, if the prosecutor says the kid committed a “qualifying felony”—define—then the prosecutor is given discretion to either file charges against the youth in juvenile or adult court.

Proposition 21, a 2000 voter-approved law called the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, gave prosecutors far more power to charge kids as adults. Thanks to Prop 21, prosecutors have been able to bypass judges’ hearings, and directly file charges against kids as young as 14. The law also greatly expanded the qualifying offenses that trigger direct files.

Direct files are harmful to kids for a number of reasons. Prosecutors overuse the tool, disproportionately directly file black and Latino kids, and send kids into an adult system not prepared to meet their unique needs (emotional needs, education needs, safety needs, and so on).

Last Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing Governor Jerry Brown to bring his proposed criminal justice reform ballot measure before voters in November. The measure would block direct files, giving judges, rather than prosecutors, the final say on whether juvenile offenders are charged as adults (in addition to other reforms, like increasing prisoners’ access to good time credits). The Supremes reversed a ruling by a superior court judge who sided with a California District Attorney’s Association members’ lawsuit alleging that amendments to the initiative did not go through the proper legal process.


The report compares data from California’s 58 counties and how they use (or don’t use) direct file.

Not counting two counties that had five or fewer transfers to adult court in 2014, Los Angeles had the lowest rate of direct files—24% (18 cases), compared with 76% (57) via a judge’s transfer hearing. Merced and Riverside Counties have the second and third lowest direct file rates at 29% and 42%, respectively. Overall, in the state of California 72% of transfers to adult court (474 cases) were via direct files; 28% (183) were via transfer hearings. In 14 counties—including Ventura, San Diego, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, and Tulare—every time a kid was charged as an adult, it was through a direct file. San Francisco and 24 other (far less populated) counties reported no direct file or transfer hearings during 2014.

And while the direct file rate has decreased for white kids, it has increased for youth of color. In 2003, Latino juveniles were 2.4 times more likely than their white peers to be directly filed. By 2014, that number increased to 3.3 times more likely. For black kids the direct file rate jumped from 4.5 times more likely than their white peers in 2003, to 11.3 times more likely.


Last month, state lawmakers shot down a “trailer bill” attached to the California May budget revision, which would have closed off public access to records regarding abuse-related near-deaths of children involved in the child welfare system. (Lawmakers dumped a similar trailer bill last year.) Current state law does not require reporting in these cases, but also does not ban it.

According to the California Department of Social Services, over the past eight years, there were 855 CA kids so severely beaten that they nearly died (980 did die).

By way of the trailer bill, the California Department of Social Services, was trying to keep $5 million in federal funding that requires the state to clearly define what kind of information is to be released in almost-deadly child welfare cases. Mitchell and fellow lawmakers believe the department’s solution—which includes providing shortened summaries of the cases, without original case notes—is not the answer.

California Senator Holly Mitchell, who chairs the committee that blocked the sneaky trailer bill, says she believes the case information should be publicly available. “We spend a lot of time talking about the value of transparency in government, and I think that applies to this scenario, too.” Mitchell said. The goal is that more attention on the nearly fatal cases might lead to “a different internal procedure that can have a positive outcome for the next child,” Mitchell added.

A new version of the bill is currently being negotiated.

CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenahll has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Disclosing a summary of findings would protect the privacy of a child recovering from abuse and adults or siblings in the home who were not responsible for it, state officials said, while meeting federal reporting requirements. Their plan had support from the Service Employees International Union, which represents social workers, and the County Welfare Directors Association, which represents local agencies that oversee child protective services.

“We appreciate the Administration’s thoughtful balancing of the public’s right to know certain relevant information about these types of incidents with the need to protect privacy for the affected children who are still alive and trying to recover from serious injuries and trauma,” the groups wrote in a joint letter of support for the bill.
But Ed Howard, a lobbyist for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, protested that the administration’s approach “elevated the needs of government over the needs of kids.”

Foster youth groups objected, too, arguing that original documents are more informative, and releasing them after near-fatalities would force counties to improve in how they look out for kids.

Children’s advocates and newspaper publishers lobbied for a bill that would require disclosure of reports on near-fatalities the same way it’s done when youngsters die.
The administration’s latest proposal surfaced last month as part of Brown’s revised state budget blueprint — a common way of passing laws that may be only tangentially related to the budget and one that avoids the lengthier vetting regular bills receive.

“They simply thrust it on everyone with this gun-to-the-head approach and attempted to get it jammed into the budget that way,” said Jim Ewert, lobbyist for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which promotes open government and access to public records.


At 12 years old, Junior Mendez led officers on a chase while under the influence. By the time he was 16 years old, the East LA teen was doing drugs, getting into trouble, and no longer going to school. LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Ambriz tried to help Junior make it through an LASD youth intervention program, but Junior quit. Not long after, in a pivotal moment, the teen decided to turn his life around, and re-enrolled in the Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives program, taking advantage of Ambriz’s offer of mentorship and support. Now, at 17 years old, Junior is one of 200 teens about to graduate from a rigorous five-and-a-half month paramilitary program run by the Army National Guard, called Sunburst Academy.

ABC7′s Miriam Hernandez has the story. Here’s a clip:

At just 12 years old, Junior led police on a chase while under the influence.

“It went really bad,” Junior said. “I was not going to school, I was doing drugs.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Ambriz said by age 16, Junior was both lost and hardened by struggles on the streets, at school and at home.

Ambriz tried to guide him through a sheriff’s program called Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, or VIDA.

But Junior said he hated it and quit. Ambriz warned him about a life of crime.

“I promised we would meet up again,” Ambriz said.

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“They Call Us Monsters” Documentary

June 7th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

“They Call Us Monsters,” a documentary that premiered Monday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, follows three teens—Jarad, Juan, and Antonio—tried as adults and locked up in the high-security Compound within Sylmar Juvenile Hall. The three face up to 200 years combined for violent crimes they committed between the ages of 14 and 16.

The three boys in the film are all taking a screenwriting class taught by the film’s producer, an award-winning filmmaker and musician, Gabriel Cowan.

Director Ben Lear, who gained unprecedented access to film life within the Compound, called the documentary “a coming of age story set behind bars.”

The film also follows the passage and effects of California’s SB 260, an important juvenile justice reform law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole. SB 260, and several other laws passed since 2012, have put California at the forefront of the juvenile justice reform movement away from the the “superpredator” fear-mongering that emerged in the 90′s. Still, in California, kids as young as 14 can be tried and sentenced as adults.

The issue is especially relevant in Los Angeles. A 2015 report found that in the last decade, LA County was responsible for sentencing the most kids to juvenile life-without-parole, nationwide.

“They Call Us Monsters” delves into the issue of whether kids who have committed brutal crimes deserve a second chance, or whether they should continue to be defined by their worst act.

In addition to Lear and Cowan, the all-star team behind the documentary includes Executive Producer, Scott Budnick, best known for producing the Hangover movie franchise and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, along with Editor Eli Despres, who co-wrote and edited the powerful documentary “Blackfish,” and Producers Sasha Alpert, Jonathan Murray, and Gil Goldschein of BMP Films.

(In the above video interview there are clips of the documentary at the 7:55 mark and the 22:10 mark.)

In an interview with the LA Times’ Josh Rottenberg, the documentary’s director, Ben Lear, explains how the movie came about, and how the documentary faces viewers with the unfathomable task of “reconciling what they did with their humanity.” Here’s an excerpt:

As these three kids were going through this screenwriting class, what were you anticipating would come out of it?

I always knew that creative process was going to lead to interesting insights into their personalities and them as teenagers. But neither Gabe nor I had any idea they were going to want so passionately and immediately to tell their own story.

The way Gabe set up the class, he said, “You can write a movie about whatever. You can write an animated movie about, like, some sci-fi thing.” And from the beginning, they were like, “No, I want to tell my story.”

It quickly became clear that they all had experienced this loss of innocence around the age of 12 or 13. So their film became about them putting their stories into one 12-year-old boy and his loss of innocence.

On the one hand, these are young guys from tough backgrounds whose impulse control and sense of consequences haven’t fully developed yet. On the other, they’ve committed serious crimes, including attempted murder and first-degree murder. What are you hoping audiences will take away from their stories?

First of all, I want people to just be aware that we try juveniles as adults. In California, a juvenile can go to prison for the rest of his life. Until the bill that we followed in the film passed, SB 260, he could never have an opportunity to get out again. The film is trying to show these kids as people and present the idea of offering them a second chance.

But while I talk with so much affection for these guys and want so much for them to succeed, I never want to get too far away from the reality of the crimes they committed. That’s the whole other side of this issue. That’s why we’re talking about them in the first place. They made horrible, heinous mistakes with real victims.

Yeah, I believe they should have an opportunity to live their lives again one day. But I think, in coming to that conclusion, you have to face the impossible task of reconciling what they did with their humanity. That’s the challenge that provoked me into telling this story and that I want to pass on to everyone who sees the film. These are kids who committed crimes … but they’re kids … but they committed horrible crimes. Wrestle with that.

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Restorative Justice in Action…and Poetry Healing Trauma in Watts

April 28th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


Part one of two-part series from Brave New Films explores Centinela Youth Services’ restorative justice program, which uses victim-offender mediation, therapy, and education services to reduce recidivism among Los Angeles’ juvenile offenders and to keep kids in their communities and out of lock-up.

Kids and teens who are locked up in juvenile halls and camps are 60% more likely to reoffend. Kids who participate in CYS’ program have a much lower recidivism rate—between 8%-11%—than their locked-up peers (around 30%).

Watch the mini documentary above.

In February, Jeremy Loudenback reported for WitnessLA about CYS and its unique juvenile diversion program.


At College Bridge Academy, a Watts charter school for kids who struggled in—or dropped out of—traditional schools, a spoken word poetry team is practicing for a competition between 50 schools called the Get Lit Classic Slam.

Over 10 years, 50,000 kids have gone through the Get Lit program. At College Bridge Academy, the program has been expanded into a full-fledged class, and uses poetry to boost literacy and help kids—many of whom have been involved in the foster care system, been abused, or witnessed violence in their community—process trauma.

KPCC’s Priska Neely has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

…in Watts, a neighborhood still struggling to recover from riots more than 50 years ago, Valles says kids have the chance to be modern-day griots, storytellers in their communities.

“A lot of our kids, they get sent the message that they’re not valuable or their voices don’t matter,” Valles said. “And a venue like this that tells you, ‘Hey what do you think? What’s your story?’

“Like for a while there’s almost this disbelief.”

Get Lit has 75 schools – mostly in Southern California – that use their curriculum. Most of the time English and drama teachers incorporate it into their classes with occasional lessons or units. Teams have practice after school.

But at College Bridge, Valles has expanded it into a semester-long class of its own – it’s all about analyzing poetry, hip hop and spoken word and writing new work.

She’s been teaching it for more than three years and said that for many students it’s been transformative.

“They realize that their story is something that needs to be shared, that needs to be said out loud, and that, once they say that story out loud, truly changes not only them but the audience,” Valles said.

Valles says she can usually put her poets in two categories: Students like Winston, who feel passionate about writing to uplift and inspire others, and those who use poetry as a way to process trauma.

Sophomore Elvira Rodriguez, 15, is in that latter category. The classic poem she’s reciting is “Royal Heart” by Andrea Gibson.

Her original response is a deeply personal poem. In it, she’s making a tragic confession to her boyfriend:

Afraid that you couldn’t understand it
Afraid that I couldn’t stand it
The memory of my own brother molesting me
You see, I can’t be in my body all the time
Feeling everyone’s eyes on me
Feeling the heaviness on my shoulders
Feeling the waves of sadness starting to destroy me

The abuse she writes about happened ten years ago. But she didn’t tell anyone until this school year.

“Instead of holding it in and being depressed all the time,” Rodriguez said. “I decided to just put it in my poem and finally said it out loud.”

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