Monday, August 29, 2016
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts




juvenile justice

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.

Posted in juvenile justice | 3 Comments »

“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.

Posted in juvenile justice | 2 Comments »

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.”

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

Injustice in LA County’s Indigent Defense System for Kids

March 29th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


In Los Angeles County, when public defenders are unable to represent juvenile defendants (because of a conflict of interest or other issue), the kids gets bounced to private “panel attorneys,” who are paid a shockingly low flat-fee stipend for each case.

Juvenile advocates have long contended that this panel attorney system means that, on average, some Los Angeles County children get much less service from their attorneys, than others, leading to far different outcomes in their cases—and arguably their lives.

With these concerns in mind, two years ago, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion by Supe. Mark Ridley-Thomas to conduct an analysis of the current juvenile indigent defense system—including how panel attorneys are compensated.

On Monday, County CEO Sachi Hamai returned with that analysis in the form of a 258-page report prepared by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law. (Ridley-Thomas’ 2014 motion was in response to a study by Loyola Law School Professor Cyn Yamashiro illuminating serious problems within LA’s system of panel attorneys.)

Between 2010-2014, 67% of new juvenile petitions were assigned to public defenders, while 28% were assigned to panel attorneys.

According to the report, 71% of indigent youth at risk of transfer to adult court were assigned to panel attorneys, while 29% were assigned public defenders. And those kids with panel counsel were more likely to be sent to adult court than their peers represented by public defenders. In the last five years, 25% of young panel attorney clients were transferred to adult court, compared with only 15% of public defender clients.

On average, panel attorneys spent just over half as much time on a case, as public defenders spent on each juvenile case, consulted with fewer experts, filed fewer motions, and provided less documentation in support of their client.

The problem, in large part, is that LA’s panel attorneys’ are paid between $340-$360 for the duration of a case, no matter how long it takes. The set fee means that there is no financial incentive to provide young defendants with quality representation.

The disparities are not due to any lack of care on the part of panel attorneys, however. “It became clear while conducting interviews and outreach for this report that most of the attorneys representing indigent youth in the county do so because they care about their clients,” the report reads. “To allege otherwise does a disservice to many hardworking and committed professionals.”

But juvenile defense extends beyond the scope of adult defense. In addition to representing young clients during criminal proceedings, juvenile defense attorneys are also responsible for “the thorough mental health, substance abuse, educational and developmental evaluations and services and treatment necessary in the modern era of proper Juvenile Delinquency Court administration,” according to State Bar of California guidelines. And the extended representation has become a crucial component of juvenile defense. Research shows that the wraparound representation leads to better outcomes for kids in the form of improved emotional and behavioral health, education, and family health, as well as reduced contact with law enforcement.

The LA County Public Defender’s Office has in-house social workers, investigators, resource attorneys, appellate attorneys, and an immigration attorney. But if a panel attorney needs assistance from an investigator, they must pay out of their own stipend. (For social workers and other experts, the panel attorneys submit a form for the County to cover the cost.)

Panel attorneys used far fewer resources than public defenders, according to the report:

• Investigators: PD 26%; Panel Counsel 9%

• Social Workers: PD 32%; Panel Counsel 1 %

• Doctors and Experts: PD 20%; Panel Counsel 9%

• Education Attorneys: PD 2%; Panel Counsel less than 1 %

After surveying other counties, the report determined that Los Angeles is the only county that doesn’t pay for investigators for their panel lawyers, the only county without oversight for the panel attorney system, and the only county that pays panel attorneys flat-fee rate per petition. For the last decade the California State Bar has said such flat-fee contracts shouldn’t be used.

“The County should ensure that indigent juveniles are provided with competent and effective attorneys whether those attorneys are working within a public defender office or operating by contract; the quality of a defendant’s representation should not be a function of random attorney assignment,” the report reads.

Supes Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl are expected to read in a co-authored motion for the board meeting today (Tuesday) in response to the report’s findings. The motion will call for a report back in 30 days on ways to remedy flaws in the county’s juvenile indigent defense system.

(We at WLA will be keeping an eye on this issue, and will let you know more as we learn more.)

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

LA County Board of Supes Tells Probation to Sign Over the Hoarded Juvie Justice $$—Now!

March 7th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


Last Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, telling LA County Probation to stop dragging its feet and fork over the $5 million in juvenile justice money that has been approved since last summer, but still somehow hasn’t gotten to the designated youth programs in each supervisor’s district, each of which desperately need the funds in order to help justice involved kids heal past traumas and reboot their lives in healthy directions.

Interim Probation Chief Cal Remington is to report back to the board in 30 days that the deed has been done, contracts have been signed, and the money has been delivered.

Why this has taken so long is unclear—or that than to say that wei
Last July, if you’ll remember, WitnessLA reported that LA County Probation was sitting on $21.7 million in state-allocated juvenile justice funds that were supposed to be spent toward programs and services that were aimed at keeping kids out of the county’s juvenile justice system—or from returning to the system, if they’d already been in.

When the Supes \ learned of the nearly $22 in hoarded cash that was supposed to be helping LA County’s youth, they voted last July 14 to instruct the Interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Probation Officer to work out a spending plan that would trigger “the immediate allocation of $1.0 million” per Supervisorial District “to fund critical programs and services delivered by community-based organizations”—for a total of $5 million to be used for needed youth programs countywide.

On November 2, 2015, the county CEO reported to the board that all the necessary local and state groups had signed off on the $5 million, and on the “critical programs and services” and the community-based organizations slated to provide those services within each district.

And then….nothing.

Last month, Jeremy Loudenback reported in WitnessLA about Centinela Youth Services (CYS) and its unique juvenile diversion program, which is one of the programs slated to receive some of the log-jammed money.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes most of South L.A., pledged his $1 million to support the CYS’s programs in South Los Angeles. Supervisor Kuehl has committed half of her allotment—$500,0000—to CYS in order to expand the juvenile diversion programs in the San Fernando Valley.

Kuehl also designated some of her $$ to a program called the Girls Health Screen (GHS), “the first evidence-based and gender-responsive medical screen developed exclusively for girls 11-17 years old who enter detention and other juvenile justice residential programs. The Girls Health Screen, which was developed by the Girls Health and Justice Institute, is now part of the standard medical intake for all girls entering the Los Angeles county juvenile justice system. (WLA will have more on the GHS and its importance later this month.)


The source of probation’s nearly $22 million in unspent juvenile justice funds comes from a funding stream created by the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), which was itself created by the Crime Prevention Act of 2000 in order “to provide a stable funding source for local juvenile justice programs aimed at curbing crime and delinquency among at-risk youth.”

The funds, which are allocated on a per capita basis to the state’s 56 participating counties (Alpine and Sierra counties opt out), are mandated to be spent to fund a range of programs that help kids. The methods used are required to be evidence-based—aka programs “that have been demonstrated to be effective…”

Each year the various counties have to propose how they are going to spend the money received—which for LA has been in the neighborhood of $28 million annually. Then at years end, they are expected to document how the funds were, in fact, spent.

Only .5—or less than one percent—of the money is allowed to be used for administrative costs. The rest is supposed to go straight to programs that directly benefit each county’s at risk youth. There is no mention in the regulations about any of the dollars being encouraged to lie fallow in a savings account that, until recently, few people seemed to know existed.

Last summer, when WLA asked Supervisor Ridley-Thomas why so much money that was slated to be used for the benefit of LA County’s at-risk kids had not beeen put to work.

“I don’t think they have a good reason,” he said. “So, it’s our job to do something about it.”

“The anti recidivism work that we need to do is really very substantial,” Ridley-Thomas continued, “so it becomes a bit problematic to imagine that we are not using all the resources at our disposal to work on the problem. The need is great. And it’s our job to address the need.”

Hopefully, this time the board’s action will succeed in dislodging at least $5 million of the withheld funds to do so.

Posted in juvenile justice, Probation | 1 Comment »

While LA County Juvenile Probation Hoards Cash, A Unique Youth Diversion Program Struggles for $$ – by Jeremy Loudenback

February 22nd, 2016 by witnessla


If Only LA County Probation Will Fork Over the Promised Funding

by Jeremy Loudenback

When Karina Cabrera first sat down with Angelica,* a 15-year-old enrolled in Centinela Youth Services juvenile diversion program, the case manager remembers the youth’s icy stare and clipped answers. (* “Angelica’s” name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

Just weeks before, Angelica had been hauled in by members of the Los Angeles Police Department after she was caught trying to steal a shirt at Target.

This was Angelica’s first offense, but the teenager from South L.A. was quickly heading down a problematic path. She had recently flunked most of her classes and her school attendance was dwindling down to nearly nothing. According to Cabrera, Angelica’s father has been in and out of jail during much of her life. Angelica had a rocky relationship with her mother, who offered little encouragement or support to her daughter. As a consequence, the girl was spending most of her time on the streets where she found the support she was looking for, but with the wrong people.

“She was trying to fill the void that wasn’t getting from mom and dad,” Cabrera said.

“Members of a gang were the only ones who showed her love.” When the two met, Angelica “couldn’t envision a future for herself that didn’t involve being part of a gang.”

After the attempted Target theft, however, the police offered Angelica and her family a novel choice: If she completed a six-month program with Centinela Youth Services—a program based in Inglewood, Calif., that includes victim restitution and therapeutic services—she could walk away without any trace of the incident on her record.

In the past, low-income youth in communities like South L.A. have had few options after getting arrested. Being picked up by the cops for law-breaking usually meant a booking number, a day in court, fees, and mandatory weekly meetings for the next year or so with a probation officer. Or worse, it could mean weeks or months in a juvenile probation facility.

But thanks to a unique pilot project created in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Los Angeles bureau, Centinela Youth Services (CYS) has given more than 300 at-risk youth a year—and the law enforcement officers who arrest them— an alternative. Using a philosophy that incorporates the emerging science of adolescent brain development, the CYS diversion program is poised for expansion. But Los Angeles County’s failure to distribute state funds related to community-based juvenile justice programs has cast doubt on the future of the program.

The only pre-arrest juvenile diversion program in the state, CYS has earned acclaim from local officials for the low recidivism rate of its graduates. According to the organization’s numbers, between 8 and 11 percent of youth who come through CYS are arrested again in the year after the completion of services. This mark is much lower than the return rate for youth who are processed though the county’s probation system.

According to a 2015 study of juvenile probation outcomes conducted by a team of researchers headed by Cal State L.A.’s Denise Herz, youth who are part of L.A. County’s system of probation camps, juvenile halls and group homes have a recidivism rate of 33 percent a year after youth exit their placements. Other estimates have pegged juvenile recidivism rates in Los Angeles County as even higher, at up 40 percent.

After concluding a three-year pilot project last year with two LAPD stations in South Los Angeles—the Southeast and 77th stations—CYS is now poised to open a second program in the San Fernando Valley, in partnership with the LAPD’s Foothill and Van Nuys stations.

“The pilot showed us it’s a win-win situation for the youth and the county,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “If you can help a young person turn their life around, you’re going to save a lot of money down the line. You’re not going to have consistent juvenile offenses, you’re not going to have an adult offender.

“You’re going to have less recidivism. That’s what we’re aiming for.”


Ever since advocates convinced LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to give the program a shot in 2012, Deputy Chief Bob Green has been a staunch supporter.

Green started his more than 30-year LAPD career working as beat cop in South Los Angeles in 1980. His early years on the job coincided with the rise of the crack cocaine epidemic and the attendant spread of gang violence, which impacted the lives of thousands of L.A. youth of that era.

Before being transferred to the Valley Bureau last year, Green spent years policing South Los Angeles. Green transitioned from the streets to leading anti-gang efforts as commanding officer of the 77th station and then later he headed up the entire South Bureau.

During his years working in South L.A., Green said he noticed with dismay that kids arrested at a young age too often found it difficult to break free of the system after that first arrest.

“Once I give that at-risk kid a booking number, that’s very hard to recover from,” Green said. “Sometimes that means a death sentence in South L.A.”

Green said that the long-term consequences of a police record can discourage many youth from changing their less-than-healthy behaviors, further entrenching their relationship with the justice system. And once they’re in the system, he said, there’s often very little in place to steer youth back to a more hopeful life.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Kerry White might agree. When he started crunching numbers from the county’s juvenile court system soon after he started working in the DA’s juvenile division in 2010, White found a disturbing trend.

Now the head of the DA’s juvenile division White saw that at least 60 percent of kids at almost every one of the county courts had more than one case, and a large number had three cases or more.

“That told me that just appearing before a judge as a minor was not enough to turn a kid’s life around. We needed something more,” White said.

With the blessing of former DA Steve Cooley and current DA Jackie Lacey, White helped broker the terms of the CYS program in 2012. Now, all misdemeanor and felony charges for youth between ages of 9 and 17 are eligible for Centinela’s diversion program, with the exception of more serious offenses like rape, murder and the use of firearm (legally referred to as 707(b) offenses).

Since the program is aimed at youth who have recently entered the system, participation is limited to young people who have committed their first or second offense. (The program occasionally includes third-time offenders if the prior charges were minor.) Youths who are arrested for robbery, assault and drug sales are eligible, pending the discretion of the police.

The LAPD continues to refer juveniles with a more serious history of gang involvement to the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, where youth can receive prevention and re-entry services. But options have been limited for lower-income youth arrested in Los Angeles for minor offenses like petty theft.

Even arrests that don’t go to court are still logged in to the juvenile automated index, a Los Angeles County Probation Department system that tracks a youth’s involvement with the court.

Once a youth is part of the system, the impact can be felt for years, according to Centinela Youth Services Executive Director Jessica Ellis. Joining the military is a popular way out of South L.A. for many youth, she said, but just one arrest can discourage those dreams. And much later, a youth’s record on the juvenile automated index can pop up in licensing applications and background checks for careers as nurses, contractors and pharmacists.

“It’s holding a lot of them back,” Ellis said.


The CYS program was adapted from a similar program in Miami that also involved partnerships with law enforcement agencies, the juvenile courts, community-based organizations, and others.

At CYS, after an arrest, eligible youth are screened to determine their needs, then linked to services such as tutoring, counseling, mentoring, substance abuse treatment and parenting classes. For instance, CYS refers many youth in South Los Angeles to the Brotherhood Crusade, where they can participate in mentoring and other youth development programs

Adapting the idea to L.A. proved difficult at first. Initially, referrals from law-enforcement agencies were slow to arrive. Part of the issue was that it was difficult to find many first- and second-time offenders who fit the bill. Even by the age of 15 or 16, staff at CYS found that many youth had already accumulated too many arrests to qualify for the program.

Centinela and their LAPD partners retuned their program. Now CYS accepts youth as young as young as 9 years old, part of an attempt to intervene earlier in the cycle of youth who at risk of entering the justice system—at a fraction of the cost of more expensive—and life-altering—incarceration options down the line.


Centinela Youth Services was able to launch its first restorative justice center in Inglewood with a $1 million grant from the Everychild Foundation.

Jacqueline Caster, president and founder of the Everychild Foundation and a Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner, said that she and her board members were attracted to the program that they believed provided an opportunity for kids in trouble that wasn’t being offered elsewhere in the county.

“When it was first pitched to us, it was compelling to hear that you can have these different results, save money and save lives,” Caster said. “And it makes a lot of sense to deal with issues on the front end rather than the back end.”

Later, CYS used money from state a grant for juvenile delinquency prevention to establish another center in South L.A., near the LAPD’s 77th station.

But long-term funding is a challenge, even for a program with a success rate like Centinela’s.

CYS supporters are hoping that a pot of state dollars earmarked for community-based juvenile justice programs will offer the long-term sustainability that has up until now eluded the program, but the needed money is far from assured.

Under the 2000 Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), California counties receive a total of more than a $100 million a year that each county is supposed to use for prevention and early intervention programs, and services aimed at keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system.

L.A. County Probation received approximately $26 million last year in JJCPA funding. But oddly the county has failed to spend a huge portion of its money. As a December 2015 audit showed, LA’s probation department has been sitting on nearly $22 million of JJCPA funds accumulated over the past four years.

(WitnessLA reported on the hidden cache of cash, which at first probation declined to admit existed, here and here.)

After news of the unused juvenile justice dollars came to light last July, the Board of Supervisors directed that $5 million of the hoarded cash be put in the hands of the Board, with $1 million allotted to each supervisorial district.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes most of South L.A., pledged his $1 million to support the CYS’s programs in South Los Angeles. Supervisor Kuehl has committed half of her allotment—$500,0000—to CYS in order to expand the juvenile diversion programs in the San Fernando Valley.

More than six months later, however, the funds have yet to be actually allocated, leaving CYS’s long-term prospects still up in the air.


CYS case manager Cabrera realized that she would have to build a relationship with Angelica before the troubled teenager could make further strides.

“She was trying to get a sense of what type of person I was and why I was there,” Cabrera recalled. “Early on, I really had to remind her about my role and why she was in the program.”

Case manager Cabrera realized that making a real difference with Angelica would require more than just a quick hand-off.

Cabrera and the rest of the staff at CYS hoped that they could help Angelica imagine a future that didn’t involve becoming gang affiliated. But first Cabrera would have to find a way to help Angelica deal with the issues that lay at the root of her risky behaviors —such as a sense of abandonment and a lack of positive role models.

“The underlying issues had been occurring for so long that they were just passing by [the adults in her life],” Cabrera said. “Nobody noticed or was providing the services to deal with the issues and the trauma she was experiencing.”

CYS Director Ellis said that roughly a third of the youth who come through the organization’s two centers are directed to services that address the significant personal trauma that has either directly or indirectly contributed to problematic behaviors, as was the case with Angelica. Another third, said Ellis, are managing an undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health issue, like a severe anxiety disorder, depression or PTSD.

She told of a youth who had been expelled from school for fighting just hours after learning that his much-loved grandfather had died. Other kids cope with trauma caused by repeated incidents of violence in their neighborhoods, or in their ruptured families. Still others have been removed from their families and placed for years in the county’s foster care system where they felt they belonged to no one.

When youth are referred to CYS, a case manager like Cabrera is charged with making a visit to the child’s home to perform a screening designed to locate areas in which youth are in need of counseling and other supports.

Conversation with a kid starts with questions like, “Have you experienced any loss or ]has someone close to you passed away in the past 90 days? Have you left school for no reason? Are you having difficulty paying attention at home or school?”

High-risk youth like Angelica who demonstrate a need for further services are connected to mental health programs and intensive clinical case management that can stretch across six months, and sometimes even longer.

Unwilling, at first, to talk about her past, it took three or four months before Angelica would agree to therapy. Cabrera met with her at least three times a month and checked in with her by phone in between, listening uncritically, building rapport, having conversations about healthy relationships and setting goals.

“One day, she said, ‘I want to have to have a healthy way of thinking,’” Cabrera remembered. “After gaining so much trust with her, she finally felt that someone cared, that someone was listening to her, and she agreed to the services we both knew she needed.”

Recently, Angelica enrolled in school again, and she’s striving for good grades for the first time. Cabrera has also connected Angelica with additional therapy and tutoring, and the teen is now participating in job training and mentoring programs.

After six months with CYS, progress is slow but, these days, when Angelica wraps up her meetings with Cabrera, the woman and the girl usually part from each other with a hug. “I like talking to you, Karina,” the youth now tells Cabrera.


“How many of you think the juvenile-justice system is broken?”

Deputy Chief Green always poses that question to officers whenever he introduces the CYS program at roll call or in the squad room.

Almost all hands in the room go up, he said.

“Very few cops think the current juvenile justice system is effective,” he said. “When you look at the current statistics, with a maybe 75 percent recidivism rate, the numbers really do speak for themselves.”

Still, Green understands that many cops have an initial resistance to programs that they feel might let kids off the hook for illegal behavior.

Green said that a powerful component in getting many law-enforcement officers on board is CYS’s mandated use of a restorative justice program that requires a youth to meet with the victim of his or her offenses and then to make some form of concrete restitution to that person or persons. This can include arranging financial compensation, community service or other forms of making amends.

“They have to meet face to face with their victim, and they have to find a way to make it right with that person. That’s hard,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot easier to have a judge tell you to do 20 hours of community service and you’re done. Going on informal probation–where you might get a letter from a judge telling you to bring your grades up. But hat’s not going to do anything to change behaviors or bring real accountability.”

The fact that, if a youth doesn’t complete the program with CYS, he or she will then be booked, is a factor that Green said eases the concerns of some officers.

He hailed the CYS program as an opportunity to way to exercise a “paradigm shift” at the agency, away from a “zero tolerance” approach, and toward a different type of policing.

“If we want to make sure that these kids don’t stay in the system for the next 30 years, we’ve got to try something different.”

Ellis agreed and explained that another powerful tool that she has used to get both law enforcement leadership and rank-and-file on board are scans of an adolescent brain.

“The statistics [about recidivism] help open the door for credibility, and then the brain science starts opening doors to a lot of conversations about how kids are not a fixed entity and how we can change their trajectory,” she said.

Ellis pointed out that, at 15, the adolescent brain lacks the decision-making ability of a fully developed adult brain. Yet when a youth robs a store at 14, she may be seen as a “bad kid” who is beyond help or change.

“That’s the big misconception that we’re fighting,” she said. “There are structural decision-making differences in the brains of kids. All of that executive thinking doesn’t finish growing in the frontal cortex until age 25.”


Since CYS’s juvenile diversion program began in 2012, it has continued to expand. Several additional law-enforcement agencies have come on board, including the Hawthorne Police Department, Compton School Police, Inglewood Police Department, El Segundo Police Department and Huntington Park Police Department. In December, Ellis said, CYS signed a memorandum of understanding to partner with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, specifically in the LASD’s South Los Angeles stations. And then there is the CYS program that is scheduled to open in the San Fernando Valley, with the help of Deputy Chief Green, who now heads the department’s Valley Bureau.

Yet looming over these optimistic plans for expansion is the still unresolved issue of the program’s sustainability. CYS will need $1.8 million to set up a restorative center in the Valley alone.

Moreover, the existing programs need additional case managers like Cabrera. Ellis says that the cost of a typical youth who goes through CYS’s program is $800. Kids who require the most intensive services with CYS may top out at $4000, which is still much cheaper than what it would cost to get similar services from the probation department, according to Ellis.

According to a review of the Probation Department’s budget and practices released last July, the yearly cost to the county for a youth at one of its juvenile halls was about $234,000. For a youth living in one of the county’s 14 camps, a stay there comes to a little more than $200,000 a year. The average daily population of both the camps and halls is about 1,600 youth.

Even with the money already pledged by Supervisors Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas, CYS supporters say that continuing the nonprofit’s diversion efforts will require long-term support from the county.

“It’s absurd. This is money that is sitting there dormant and is supposed to be put to work keeping kids out of the system,” Caster said. “It would be a tragedy if they drag this out, and the program has to go on hiatus. There needs to be a permanent income stream.”

For Green, CYS offers a rare opportunity for the LAPD to build toward real systems change. But without greater county leadership, he fears the moment may pass, and it will be too easy for old policing habits to return.

“Centinela Youth Services has got huge potential to build on their work, but there needs to be a commitment,” Green said.

“If funding dries up, then you’re right back where you started: hook and book.”

Jeremy Loudenback is the Child Trauma Editor for the Chronicle of Social Change

Loudenback’s story was produced in collaboration with WitnessLA’s publishing partner, The Chronicle of Social Change.

Posted in juvenile justice | No Comments »

« Previous Entries