Youth Justice: Healing Not Punishment

LA County Probation Invests $1 Million in the Belief That Art Can Change the Lives of the County’s System-Involved Youth

Youth probationers working on a mural courtesy of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

A long list of studies and reports have pointed to the fact that art, writing, theater, and music can be remarkably powerful when it comes to healing and redirecting the lives of kids who have become involved in the juvenile justice system.

In 2012, for example, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth study, which used four different longitudinal studies (three from the U.S. Department of Education) to track low income, at-risk children, teenagers, and young adults who had either high or low levels of arts engagement in or out of school.

To few people’s surprise, the NEA report found that the kids with high exposure to arts—music, dance, theater, or the visual arts—consistently did better than the kids with a little or no arts exposure.

Similarly, the Urban Institute’s 2015 evaluation of a five-year “Arts Infusion” program, which brought arts instruction and activities to locked-up teens in Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, found that the program’s youth participants showed statistically significant improvements in social and emotional learning skills, “as measured by conflict resolution, future orientation, critical response, and career readiness.”

Closer to home, the Los Angeles-based InsideOutWriter’s program—which works with kids in juvenile halls and probation camps around the state—is widely known for its ability to lower the likelihood of recidivism among the teenagers who are involved in its writing workshops.

With these examples and others in mind, over the last two years, the Los Angeles County Probation Department and the LA Arts Commission have been field-testing what they describe as arts integration in several of the county’s juvenile facilities with the aid of a highly regarded organization known as the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN)—a collaborative umbrella agency for nine member organizations with experience providing arts programming in the county’s juvenile detention facilities.

Kids in LA County Juvenile facility look at finished mural, courtesy of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network

Buoyed by the success of this field testing, Probation has newly committed over $1 million to be invested in arts programming for kids over the coming year as part of the county’s efforts to embrace “a culture of care over a correctional model” in its approach towards the young people under its supervision.

The investment is part of the larger shift to the ‘LA Model” of juvenile justice reform that emphasizes healing rather than punishment for kids, which is being pioneered at probation’s Campus Kilpatrick youth facility, which opened with much fanfare and anticipation on June 30, 2017.

A Plan for Getting Around the County’s Notoriously Unhelpful Funding Roadblocks

Kaile Shilling and the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network is recognized by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl & the LA Board of Supes

There is, however, one small worry about the new $1 million arts initiative.

Over the past few years, LA County Probation has been criticized for sitting on millions in juvenile funding that badly needed to spent on road-tested community programs help LA County’s kids.

(WLA has written extensively on this issue with our Follow the Money series.)

Now, much of the money has finally, thankfully been allocated. Yet, despite the best efforts of the department’s new administration, which inherited the issue in January of this year, getting the actual cash to its various intended destinations has still proved maddeningly challenging.

The new arts funding initiative intends to circumvent the bureaucratic roadblocks that have hampered previous endeavors by employing a “new and innovative” funding strategy that probation officials and juvenile advocates hope will get the necessary dollars where they need to go.

The idea is that, by partnering with the Arts Commission, probation believes it can “move significant funding” to that agency, which will in turn parcel out dollars to the right community based organizations, which will actually do the work with the kids, with the well-placed Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network facilitating.

“We believe in the arts as a way to reach all kids,” said Sheila Mitchell, Chief Deputy Probation Officer, who oversees the operations of the Probation Department’s juvenile institutions. “And the research increasingly shows that arts engagement is highly effective in engaging young people who have experienced significant trauma – which are most of the youth in our care.

“When we connected with the Arts Commission, this seemed like a win-win, and we were glad to try something we thought we be effective for our kids.”

Arts for Healing & Arts for Careers

According to those involved, one of the things that the department believes will set the LA Model apart, is that it includes “a commitment to coordinated, integrated arts as part of the school day and after-school engagement.”

An Arts Facilitator (staffed by AIYN) has reportedly been hired to work with students and staff at the new Kilpatrick Campus to help integrate the practice of using arts as a healing strategy, and also as a potential career pathway that kids might explore when they get out and begin looking ahead.

Those involved believe that the career part of the arts program is particularly relevant to LA-based kids.

“One out of every six jobs in Los Angeles County is in the creative economy,” said Denise Grande, Director of Arts Education at the Arts Commission. The work we are doing with Probation offers a tangible opportunity for these youths and we’re committed to building a pathway gives them access to these jobs.”

Art saves lives, as far as WLA is concerned, so we have our fingers crossed that all goes well with Probation’s arts integration endeavor.

We’ll be checking in.

In the meantime, do take a look at the impressive variety of programs offered by the AIYN members involved in the new arts strategy, which include The Actors’ Gang Youth Project, Armory Center for the Arts, ArtWorxLA, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Jail Guitar Doors, Rhythm Arts Alliance, Street Poets Inc., Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, and Write Girl/Bold Ink Writers.

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