Arts Jail Jail Reform Juvenile Justice Juvenile Probation LA County Board of Supervisors LA County Jail LA County Probation Youth Justice: Healing Not Punishment

County to Boost Art Programs in County Lockup and to Use Art to Prevent Incarceration in the First Place

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Updated: This story was updated on March 12, 2020, at 10:00 a.m., to reflect the events of the LA County Supervisors’ meeting on March 10.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion adopting a countywide plan to expand arts-based rehabilitative and educational programs and strategies in juvenile lockups and adult jails.

At the end of 2018, the Arts for Justice Fund issued a $750,000 grant to the LA County Department of Arts and Culture to boost arts programs for kids in LA’s juvenile halls and camps. In order to build upon that investment, the LA County supervisors voted in December 2018 to convene a Youth Arts Task Force comprised of county and community stakeholders, and directed the Department of Arts and Culture to come up with a county-level plan to enhance art-based justice reforms.

The resulting 25-page report, called the “Countywide Plan for Elevating the Arts as a Criminal Justice Reform Strategy” offers recommendations for expanding “arts-based programs and services for those impacted — or at risk of becoming impacted — by the criminal justice system.”

Tuesday’s new motion from Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl sets into motion the goals of the countywide plan, and begins implementation of its top-priority recommendations.

“A deeper investment is needed to keep the arts at the forefront of the youth justice system while allowing adults in the justice system to also benefit,” the Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl explain in their motion.

The Department of Arts and Culture developed its plan with the youth arts task force, the LA County Arts Education Collective Youth Advisory Council, other county leaders, and with input from 24 community-based organizations and ten community forums held across the county.

The plan lays out five broad goals: establishing countywide leadership and coordination, expanding prevention strategies at the community level, strengthening art-focused education and reentry supports for kids in lockup, developing similar supports for adults in jail, and cultivating external collaboration — especially with philanthropic partners — to further “elevate the role of arts” in the realm of criminal justice reform.

One of the top focuses is prevention.

“Research shows us that the best outcomes for decreasing justice system involvement are achieved through individual and community development efforts, along with opportunities for job placement,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “These strategies also tend to be much more cost-effective than long-term custody and care.”

Thus, the plan calls for direct investment in and scaling of arts and cultural services in parks, libraries, and other county facilities in “priority areas of the county disproportionately impacted by the justice system.”

Broadening current paths to employment in arts-related fields, so that people from historically marginalized communities can thrive in the creative world, is also high on the plan’s to-do list for the county. The plan recommends plugging youth at risk of involvement with the justice system into internships and paid job training programs, among other strategies.

Arts-based tools will also be used in diversion services for youth.

For those kids inside the county’s lockups, the plan calls for the expansion of arts instruction and the development of art-based trauma-informed reentry and job services to support youth as they head back to their communities. The report notes that arts programs have been found to improve self-esteem and self-control among kids in the justice system.

Arts also help incarcerated adults process their emotions and build resiliency, art programs are effective at reducing recidivism, and, in some cases, can open paths to future careers after incarceration.

Adult jails often don’t have the level of arts education that is offered in state prisons. Implementing the countywide plan would likely go a long way toward changing that.

The county, must “draw upon lessons learned and successes realized in supporting system-involved youth” as it brings arts instruction into the adult carceral setting, according to the report.

The county will also use the artistic creations of people with lived experience to “change the narrative” and reduce stigma surrounding involvement with the criminal justice system.

“Expanding arts-based strategies for justice-involved populations,” Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl write, “will both advance the Board’s priority of creating a more rehabilitative, and less punitive, criminal justice system as well as the Board’s commitment to a trauma-informed and healing approach to violence prevention.”

Beyond adopting the plan’s goals and recommendations, Tuesday’s motion directs the LA County CEO to work with Department of Arts and Culture Director Kristin Sakoda to look at the feasibility of funding the next phases of the plan, and report back during the supplemental budget phase for fiscal year 2020-2021.

Additionally, the arts director and CEO will analyze the county’s ability to meet the plan’s goals with existing funds.

Sakoda will also be required to report back every 180 days to update the board on the implementation process.

“Arts and culture have the power to promote positive narrative change and connect us to our humanity and the humanity of others,” said Sakoda. “By investing in justice-impacted youth, individuals, and communities as part of alternatives to incarceration, arts and culture can play a meaningful role in helping the County enhance our systems of care, and build safer, healthier, and more equitable communities.”

Photo of California prisoners in art class by Peter Merts, California Arts Council.


  • I have examples of the “art” they create in custody. It tends to be gang-related, anti-police scenes of violence. They pay homage to their “patrons” with very nice (some are really good artists) caricatures of their homies, complete with tattoos signifying their lifelong exploits of criminality.

    If only they would use their powers for good…

  • I can understand the need to provide diversion programs, as well as trying to provide some “skills” to these incarcerated youth / adults. However, in my oopinion, this is nothing more than a “touchy, feely” bleeding heart LibTurd program, which will cost the taxpayers more money, with minimal positive results.

    For most of these incarcerated individuals, the craft they learned (i.e., tagging, graffiti) was learned from their association with other individuals who shared the same interest(s). That interest was to vandalize property by scrawling their moniker, crew name and or gang name, across as many canvasses (private property), across the county or city. Does anyone remember “Chaka”? Further, what about that other “misunderstood” youngster that graffitied an MTA bus that Mayor Antonio VillariConquista was riding? These two aforementioned “misunderstood” individuals were not lacking artistic capabilities, they were lacking self-esteem, guidance, structure and discipline.

    If the POS, BOS really wants to make an impact on some of these individuals lives, maybe they (BOS), should fund school programs that will enhance some of these “misunderstood” individuals creative abilities. Programs that will provide the necessary skills to survive in today’s job market (i.e., automotive repair, graphics design, etc.). Although these are technical in nature, they do provide an opportunity for some individuals. I do not see that many “homies” art on display at the local Cultural Museum of Art.

    In addition, in order to impact the lives of these “misunderstood, marginalized” individuals, intervention will be a key factor in the success of these individuals lives. Intervention will have to be introduced long before the individual becomes a part of the justice system, not when the individual is already in the justice system.

  • As a NY State Certified Vocational rt Instructor with years of experience teaching painting and drawing skills to inmates, I can testify that the results in many cases is absolutely positive. Some of my students have moved on to become entrepreneurial portrait, floral and interpretive artists with mail order income while still being incarcerated. Others have become commercial artists in society after their release. Most, who stay in the program, find new levels for self esteem and personal worth through the process of creating their own art that would not be available to them without this resource.

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