LOOKING FOR THE LA MODEL
Los Angeles County is at a critical stage in reforming its juvenile justice system, which is the largest in the nation. Juvenile crime is down, and more kids than in the past are being given probation for non-serious infractions, rather than being sent to locked facilities.
Yet, still nearly 1000 young people are spending their time daily in LA County’s 3 juvenile halls or in one of its 9 probation camps that are still in operation. (It has 14 total.)
Locking kids up is a costly matter. The average daily tab to house a youth in one of LA County’s camps is $329.61. If he or she stays in camp for six months, that’s over $60,000 to keep one teenager for one-half year—far in excess of what it would cost to send that same kid to a high priced private university.
Yet, the recidivism rate of kids coming out of the camps, according to probation’s own numbers, is 40 percent. Not an encouraging success rate. Moreover, some researchers claim that the return-customer percentage is really much higher.
Five years ago, things were spectacularly worse in the camps—with conditions that were, frankly, unconscionable. But, due to nearly eight years of oversight by the Department of Justice, plus several big, bad lawsuits, there have been heartening improvements.
There is still a long way to go. Even Probation Chief Jerry Powers described the design of the probation camps, in a report to the LA County Board of Supervisors, as “creat[ing] an image of a jail-like environment.”
The good news is that there’s a scheme in the works, which many believe could usher in truly profound changes in the way LA treats its law-breaking young. Officials at LA County Probation, along with participants from a gaggle of other agencies, plus university researchers, policy makers and advocates— are in the midst of hammering out the finer details of a plan to build a new kind of probation camp, a $48 million pilot project that everyone hopes will become a model that can be replicated throughout LA County’s juvenile system—and, with luck, beyond that to the rest of the state, or maybe even the nation.
As we’ve reported in the past, the new pilot facility is to be built on the site of the now-closed Camp David Kilpatrick, the system’s oldest such facility, located in the rural hills above Malibu. The idea is to transform the run-down Kilpatrick—which, prior to teardown, resembled a group of dilapidated prison barracks——into a cluster of homelike cottages that sleep a maximum of 12. Thus both the structure and the programmatic strategy of the new facility will theoretically be designed to promote rehabilitation and healing, rather than simply behavior control, as has been too often the emphasis in the past.
But the details of this brand new programming strategy—which is slated to be called The LA Model—are, in many ways, still very fluid.
Part of the issue is the fact that the project is an unusually collaborative one, with planning committees that include juvenile justice advocates from various nonprofits, along with representatives from the LA County Office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Mental Health, the Los Angeles Arts Commission, the Juvenile Court Health Services, the Department of Public Works, researchers from UCLA and Cal State LA, and so on.
And in the end, it is LA County Probation’s project, and probation is, of course, overseen by the LA County Board of Supervisors, which holds the purse strings on the enterprise. Additionally, on anything regarding staffing, probation has to answer to its unions, which—naturally—want a say in the matter.
Getting this diverse array of people, agencies, and interests to agree has reportedly been challenging. As a consequence, although progress is being made, there have been repeated delays. As it stands now, the LA Model camp is set to be completed in late 2016 and open in January 2017.
A TEAM OF UNCONVENTIONAL EXPERTS
With all of the aforementioned in mind, some of the researchers and policy advocates involved—namely a UCLA-affiliated research team working under Dr. Jorja leap (whose CV you can find here), along with policy analysts Michelle Newell and Angela Chung from the California branch of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF-CA), decided everyone might benefit from the opinions of a very different group of advisors—specifically kids who have been locked up in the probation camps, thus have personal experience with the system.
And so it was that last spring Leap’s team, together with the CDF-CA policy analysts, coordinated a series of five focus groups with 48 teenagers and young adults, each of whom had spent time in LA County’s long-troubled camps. At every meeting, the participants were asked various versions of the same question: “How can Los Angeles County’s probation camps provide a more positive experience for youth?”
The focus groups were turned out to be quite productive. So the researchers and analysts decided to go a step further. They selected five young men and women from the groups and made them “policy fellows.” The idea was that the five would help take the material gained thus far from the focus groups, and distill it, and turn the youth-generated information into a policy brief.
The fellows—three males and two females—ranged in age from 18 to 27, and collectively had spent a total of 102 months—8.5 years—in LA County’s juvenile camps. Their names are Karla Fuentes-Quiroz, Raul Barreto, Ralphica Garnett, Daniel Bisuano and James Anderson.
“Too often we have policy briefs authored by people who don’t have any real world connection with the subject,” said Dr. Jorja Leap. Everyone was pleased that this time it was different.
After their selection, the five spent several months going to workshops to learn the nuts and bolts of research, analysis and policy writing. Then they were mentored by CDF-CA’s juvenile justice policy team through the process of conceiving and writing a brief that outlined a five priorities that the youth fellows and their mentors concluded must be at the top of the list for the LA Model planners.
The completed 34-page brief—titled Rising up, Speaking Out: Youth Transforming Los angeles County’s Juvenile Justice System—was presented to the various Kilpatrick planning entities early this year, and reportedly was warmly received.
“The response has been overwhelming and positive,” said Leap. “There is tremendous support for the youth voices and how important these are in the process.”
Before we get to the details of the youth brief, however, it might be helpful to meet one of the fellows, Raul Barreto, whose backstory represents the kind of life experience that the five brought to the table.
EXPERTISE GAINED THE HARD WAY
When Raul Barreto was a pre-teen, a lot of the kids around him were joining street gangs, yet he did not. Like the other boys, he was curious about the gang world. But his over-stressed and distracted mother moved her eight children around far too often for him settle comfortably into any group—gangs included.
“My mom did her best. I love and admire her so much for that,” he said. “She always fed us. She washed our clothes. But she could never afford to stay in one place.” The frequent moving was compounded by the fact that there were no rules in the household. No boundaries, Raul said. No emphasis on school. No protective parental focus that helped her children feel secure and emotionally tethered.
It didn’t help that Raul had no dad around for most of his upbringing. When he was seven-years-old, his father vanished into prison.
In the father’s absence, Raul’s oldest brother became his role model, imparting to the younger boy the only gifts he had to give, which were primarily the ability to be tough, even when you didn’t feel tough, and instructions about how to get by on the street.
When Raul was in 8th grade, he put those lessons to work by attempting to form a clique of his own. When a boy from another clique “disrespected” Raul’s newly formed group, Raul did what he thought he had to do. He whacked the kid with a heavy chain, and was quickly arrested and charged with assault. And so it was that, at age 13, he was sentenced for nine months to an LA County probation camp.
“Basically, it was gladiator school,” said Raul of his first camp stay. The staff offered little help. “They didn’t do much more than herd people. They were essentially guards.”
Raul’s brother, who’d been to camp before him, told him how to navigate the place without being bullied. It was not honorable to back down, his older brother said, even if you got beat up, even if you got hurt badly. “There was a certain pride that I held in having never backed down,” Raul said.
Raul was sent to LA County camps a total of four times, although the last three stays were for probation violations, not for additional charges. Between camp stays, Barreto’s adored older brother, who was nineteen at the time, was arrested and sentenced to prison for more than 100 years.
The brother’s sentence slammed Barreto far more than his father’s exit had but, as with the camp fights, he took the blow with as much stoicism as he could muster.
His last stay in camp was at Camp David Gonzalez, then the system’s most progressive, volunteer-heavy facility, located in the hills off Malibu Canyon. There Barreto met a mentor who would change his life, a volunteer named Dan Seaver who ran the camp’s unique, kid-produced newspaper.
Seaver repeatedly told Raul that he was smart, and had potential, and urged him to take advantage of the camp’s various activities. “He talked to me about college. He talked to me about work. He talked to me about those and other things in a way that made them real for me,” he said.
During his stay at Gonzalez, Raul learned he had a knack for writing, and soon became the newspaper’s editor. While in camp, he also read like crazy. Fantasy was his favorite genre. “I read all the Harry Potter books, and a whole lot of others,” Raul said. “I wanted read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they didn’t have it in the camp library.” Reading was a way he could escape from being locked up” Raul said. “It also helped me become a better writer.”
Seaver’s mentorship at Gonzales didn’t magically solve all of Barreto’s problems. It took a couple additional incarcerations, this time as an adult. It also took knowing someone who, over time, refused to give up on him.
Fast forward to the present. Raul, now has a good job working for Martin Outdoor Media, the company that sells advertising on those green bus benches that bloom around the city. He has also done some crew work in the film industry and has plans to do more.
In his off time, he does advocacy work for an organization called Anti-recidivism Coalition—or ARC—through which he makes visits to the county’s probation camps to talk to kids who remind him of his younger self, telling them not to give up, that they can do it, that it’ll be okay.
And, now of course, there is his involvement with the policy fellowship.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR TRANSFORMATION
In all, the youth fellows came up with five primary areas of change that they believed were most essential.
“These are very realistic recommendations,” said Michelle Newell of the Children’s Defense Fund who, like Leap, feels that the youth-informed policy brief has been well received.
“Things have gotten a lot a lot better in the camps,” continued Newell, But, in a lot of ways, she said, they were “still operating on a punitive incarceration model.”
Probation had worked to hit all the marks that the various big lawsuits, and the years of oversight by the DOJ have required, and that has helped, Newell said. “But compliance-based reactive change isn’t going to get us where we want to go.”
Hence the brief, the five primary points of which are the following:
1. Increase the availability and diversity of programs.
• Implement programs at all camps that are youth-centered and tailored individually for a youth’s strengths, skills and interests. Programs should be scheduled in ways that encourage youth participation, making efforts to address gaps in scheduling and ensure equal access across the camps.
• Provide camp programs that prepare young people to successfully transition back into their communities, such as higher education workshops, work and technical skill-building, and job search and interviewing workshops.
• Provide high quality education in probation camps, including utilizing the 300 minutes of instructional time for supportive and advanced curriculum, better textbooks and more avenues to establish stronger credit recovery. Continue to expand successful educational models such as Road to Success Academy, a project-based learning model that was piloted in the two girls’ camps and is currently being expanded.
• Expand partnerships with community-based organizations at all camps to provide a diverse array of programs for young people to develop pro-social skills and connections with mentors (e.g., Camp Gonzales, arguably the most resourced camp,12 has many such partnerships and can serve as a model).
2. Foster mentorship and supportive relationships with probation officers.
*Hire, invest in and retain probation staff who are not trained only as guards but rather who also want to work with youth and rehabilitate them. These efforts have already begun but need to be deepened; probation should reevaluate job descriptions and hiring practices to ensure the best staff is recruited and retained.
* Train and provide technical assistance for probation staff on all levels in trauma-informed approaches, positive youth development and other therapeutic approaches to communicating, managing and working with youth. Los Angeles County should invest in trainings such as those run by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network or other violence intervention programs that prevent re-victimization and train staff in the role trauma plays in brain development, adolescent development and behavior.
*Build a mission, culture and operations centered on positive approaches to safety and building relationships, moving away from correctional approaches that emphasize control and supervision.
• Foster activities, routines and spaces for probation staff and youth to engage in positive ways (e.g., in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, at the maximum security facility for youth who have committed serious and violent crimes run by the nonprofit Alternative Rehabilitation Communities (ARC), staff sit and eat with the young people at the dining table for all meals, creating a family feel).
• Establish a working schedule for probation staff that supports a small group treatment model and is consistent with relationship building20 (e.g., reevaluate the 56-hour staffing shift and determine whether a different schedule would allow for closer relationship building with youth).
3. Cultivate the dignity of youth at camp through increased privacy, cleanliness and nutrition.
• Provide access to healthier food, more food and better quality food. This includes providing more snacks, removing expired food and having equal access to seconds (i.e., not providing reward systems for youth to have seconds).
• Increase hygiene by providing youth with individual towels and soaps, better quality hygiene products, including feminine products, cleaner and nicer clothing, and better quality and cleaner bedding (e.g., Santa Clara County’s William F. James Enhanced Ranch provides each youth his or her own regular commercial hygiene products).
• Create physical layouts of camps that provide more privacy in bathrooms (for toilets and showers), as well as dorm rooms with less crowding, homelike furniture and better quality beds (e.g., The Missouri Model created homelike pods that fit 12 youth in one setting rather than 100 beds in one dorm with a single control center.
4. Increase connections with family and community.
• Provide regular visits (i.e., more than one a week) for families and include flexible times to accommodate families’ schedules (e.g., North Carolina state facilities provide visitation seven days a week, which helps youth build closer relationships with their families.)
• Provide access to transportation, given that most probation camps are in
remote locations where public transportation does not exist. This could be through transportation stipends, rides to camps or alternative meeting places where youth are transported closer to home for supervised visits (e.g., in Virginia, the Transportation Program provides low-cost transportation for family members who need it29). Sending youth to facilities in remote areas that are not accessible to families or community services also needs to be re-evaluated.
• Create alterative mediums for families to communicate with youth, such as Skype and video chat. Camps should consider home passes or “furloughs,” which are used in many model juvenile justice programs, including Santa Clara County, California, Missouri and ARC in Pennsylvania.
• Eliminate any practices that limit or remove visitation, phone calls or mail from family as punishment.
• Create physical spaces and procedures in camp that make families feel welcomed, valued, less intimidated and open to staff interaction.
• Expand the definition of family and allow visits from non-relatives; mentors, siblings under 18 years old and other loved ones play an important role in youth’s lives and should be allowed to visit.
5. Improve camp discipline and management procedures.
End regimented, boot camp-like camp procedures (e.g., marching with hands behind the back, sitting on bunks to be counted, and running to and from buildings) that demean youth and convey control and coercion.
• End punitive practices, including solitary confinement, use of force and pepper spray, and replace them with positive behavior support systems. Nationally recognized models demonstrate successful methodologies for crisis and safety management that are not deficit-based, such as Positive Youth Development, Trauma-Informed Care, New York State’s Sanctuary Model37 and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
• Adopt practices that let youth feel normal and valued, including recognizing normal adolescent developmental milestones — celebrating birthdays, acknowledging losses such as deaths, and recognizing accomplishments, such as graduations.
• Allow for personal space and freedom by developing camp routines and structures that allow for youth to experience a sense of calmness, privacy and reflection, which is critical to their development and the progress they make with their treatment.
LIVES SAVED—AND NOT
Each of the five fellows wrote a personal introduction for one of the five categories. It is likely not a surprise that Raul was the person in charge of the chapter on relationships and mentoring.
As a part of the introduction to his section, Raul wrote the following:
“I was 13 my first time in camp and was sentenced to nine months. During those nine months I didn’t get counseling, I didn’t learn a trade or any new skills and, probably most importantly, I never made a connection with a positive adult or anyone I trusted who could give me life advice. I had myself and my peers. When I wasn’t worried about my peers doing something, I was worried about staff and vice versa. I learned to survive in so many unnecessary ways that are only useful in institutions.
“Every time I was released, I remained unguided and misinformed and, usually, I ended up recidivating. Luckily, I eventually broke that pattern. Many of the kids I met, fought with, laughed with and lived with throughout my many stays in juvenile detention are now dead, heavily drug addicted or serving life in prison.
“The difference between me and them is that during my last camp program, I met a volunteer who became my mentor, a person who until this very day will answer my call, listen to my problems and give me the best possible advice he can offer. I firmly believe it was this simple, consistent act that saved my life….
“And while my camp experience happened a lot longer ago than many other youth in the focus groups, the need for connection and mentorship continues to remain a problem for youth at camps today. My experience simply shows just how important it is when just one person makes a connection with a young person….”
Hard to argue with that.