Follow the Money Youth Justice: Healing Not Punishment

Fed Up With Probation’s Ongoing Failure to Spend Juvenile Justice $ Millions on Proven Programs for LA County’s Kids, the Supes Make a Radical Move

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday afternoon, the  Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a new motion that will put most of the power to choose how a large pot of state money gets spent into the hands of the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Counsel (JJCC), a mostly unknown voting body that is crammed with youth experts and advocates.  Prior to this shift, the funds were almost entirely controlled by LA County Probation, a situation that the board decided wasn’t working.

“I find it unacceptable,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn before the vote, “that our community-based organizations” which are “on the ground doing the work, providing programs for our young people, are underfunded while millions of dollars lie unused.”

The rest of the board agreed. Yet, the multi-year road to that precedent-breaking vote was long, winding, and filled with drama—plus an act of mutiny.

Here’s the deal:

Each year Los Angeles County receives approximately $28 to $31 million in Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act funds  that are supposed to be spent toward creating a “comprehensive plan of community-based youth services and programs” that focus on keeping LA County’s at-risk kids away from the justice system.

Some of this JJCPA money can also be spent on related programs to help kids already in the system with reentry, so that they are able to move forward toward success in their lives upon release from juvenile halls or camps, instead of bouncing back into contact with cops and/or courts after they go back home.

Yet, for years, large percentages of these funds allocated by the state have either been allowed to pile up unspent or, in some cases, spent on questionable programs like so-called voluntary probation, all of which has caused ongoing frustration among local youth advocates and the board of supervisors, among others.

WitnessLA has been writing about various problems with the way the county spends—or fails to spend—its JJCPA millions since July 2015.

(For instance, there was the memorable case of the $400,000 in juvenile justice cash that probation spent yearly on a youth program that, for a bizarrely long period of time, served zero kids.)

In the fall 2017, concern about the way LA was using the JJCPA funding stream reached Sacramento and, in October of that year, then California Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra, expressed his dismay in a detailed letter to LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald (who inherited the mess), telling her that if he didn’t get answers to a list of 12 questions about the department’s use of the JJCPA millions, he would ask the state legislature to get that information via an audit.

Bocanegra had his own problems to handle by December 2017, thus the audit was put on indefinite hold.

In the last year or so, however,  matters were measurably improving when it came to the use of JJCPA funding. The “voluntary probation” program was shut down.  And the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Counsel (JJCC), the group tasked with approving each year’s JJCPA budget, went from a passive group willing to sign off on any spending plan the probation department set in front of it, to a truly dynamic voting body.

Yet, at the most recent JJCC meeting on held on Monday, March 18, the much-valued improvements seemed suddenly endangered.

The events of the March 18 meeting (which we’ll explain in a minute), along with the fact that, right now LA County Probation has $79 million in JJCPA cash lounging seemingly unproductively in the bank, triggered the introduction of a new motion sponsored by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas, that aspires to fix the JJCPA funding allocation problem once-and-for-all.

Among other things, the Ridley-Thomas/Hahn motion directs the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council to align FY 2019-2020 JJCPA dollars—and all such future dollars—with a new Comprehensive Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan (CMJJP), which was written by a special task force appointed a year ago specifically to create an evidence and research-based strategy for how the JJCPA funds could best be spent.

The motion was scheduled for a vote, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 26.

But it was far from clear that it was going to pass.

The far-sighted creation of stable funding

Before we get to the rest of the story, here’s quick JJCPA primer.

The Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), was itself created by the Schiff-Cárdenas Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (AB 1913), 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 have traditionally opted out), are mandated to be spent to fund a range of evidence-based programs, meaning programs “that have been demonstrated to be effective.” The largest part of the funds are supposed to be allocated to community-based organizations (CBOs) that have proven track records for helping kids.

Each of the 56 counties that gets a pot of JJCPA money is required to form a Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council—or JJCC—which is, in turn, tasked with deciding how their jurisdiction should spend their JJCPA cash.

The state further mandates that the JJCC should have a certain make-up, which must include:

…the chief probation officer, as chair, one representative each from the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the sheriff’s department, the board of supervisors, the department of social services, the department of mental health, a community-based drug and alcohol program, a city police department, the county office of education or a school district, and an at-large community representative. … [The] coordinating council shall also include representatives from nonprofit community-based organizations providing services to minors.

LA County as scofflaw

Most counties follow those rules.

Yet, for around 15 years, Los Angeles was a scofflaw when it came to being in compliance with how the JJCC was supposed to be constituted.

For instance, probation, which ran the JJCC, included no representatives from the LA County Board of Supervisors on the panel, nor did it include anyone from social services (Department of Children and Family Services), from any community based drug and alcohol program, or any “at-large community representative.”  And, most importantly, it didn’t include anyone from the community based organizations that were supposed to make up a significant chunk of the membership of LA’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council.

To make matters worse, some of the existing members didn’t bother to show up to most of the meetings.

And those who did show up, reportedly, did little more than simply rubber stamp whatever yearly spending plan that LA County Probation presented.

The mutiny

Then, at one JJCC meeting in April 2016, something weird happened. There was a mutiny among several of the JJCC members who were tired of being irrelevant, and serving on a body that was not terribly legal.

During the meeting, the mutiny spread until, when it came time to rubber stamp the yearly must-pass JJCPA spending plan given the JJCC group by probation, the majority of the members wouldn’t do it until they had a real Council with all the required groups and county agencies represented.

Between 2016 and now, the mutiny resulted in the creation of what is now a very active 27-member JJCC that, through its own special task force, has hammered out a “Comprehensive Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan (CMJJP)” that is meant to determine how JJCPA funds are spent.

At least that’s what it said in the summary of the carefully crafted draft of the new CMJJP—now known as the Plan—which was supposed to be voted on and approved at a Monday, March 18, meeting, along with a corresponding FY 2019-2020 budget, the formation of which, was to be guided by—at least to a meaningful degree—by the above-mentioned CMJJP.

But that’s not what happened.

There was indeed a “Comprehensive Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan” presented that was to guide the budget, and which the voting members of the JJCC embraced. This Plan prioritized prevention and community-based interventions, and included a framework for updating itself each year.

Within the same meeting, the county also presented  an “Annual Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act Budget,” which appeared to have almost nothing at all to do with the newly presented Plan,” never mind that the Plan’s entire raison d’être was to direct how the JJCPA dollars would be spent.

Yet, instead of following the Plan’s recommendation, the new budget made such funding choices as allocating 40 percent of the year’s JJCPA funds—or $11.2 million—to paying the salaries of the county’s “school based”  juvenile probation officers, instead of letting those officers’ salaries come out of the probation department’s nearly $1 billion budget.

Peculiarly, another major line item was $4.2 million for a risk assessment tool to be used on the county’s kids, another expenditure that youth advocates said belonged in the department’s own budget.

So, a very subdued JJCC unanimously voted to accept the forward looking, evidence-based new Plan that had been painstakingly hammered out by the special JJCC task force.

At the same time, they decided not to vote at all on the business-as-usual budget for spending the JJCPA funds—at least not on that day.

The budget would be revisited at a meeting in early April.

A few days after the unnerving meeting, the Ridley-Thomas/Hahn motion showed up on the Supes agenda.

So who controls the JJCPA budget?

While the motion praised probation for pursuing “some innovative strategies…including investing in the Public Private Partnership program and youth diversion,”  it criticized the department for allowing $79 million in JJCPA funds to just sit in the bank.

It also made clear that it wanted the JJCC’s Plan to guide the JJCPA budget.

Unsurprisingly, the motion has been very warmly welcomed by the  JJCC members we were able to reach on the matter.

“The board motion affirms that our work as a more diverse, engaged JJCC to develop and implement an approximately $30 million spending plan ​is both appreciated and has to go farther,” said Patricia Soung, director of youth justice policy and senior staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund of California.

Soung is also the co-chair of the JJCC task force that created the Comprehensive Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan.

“This past Monday,” Soung said, referring to the March 19 meeting, “for the first time since JJCPA funds were created in 2001, the JJCC adopted an overhauled plan that is grounded in data and prioritizes serving youth early and outside of the justice system whenever possible. But the Board’s instruction is clear that the budget presented so far falls short.”

Josh Green, director of criminal justice, and senior staff attorney, for the Urban Peace Institute, and another member of the JJCC member, and the task force, described how the new Plan is designed to direct the JJCPA funds “to the type of programming that’s going to support the youth across a continuum in the county.”

As for the board motion, Green said it “reminds the JJCC that this is the role it plays for the board.” It also, he said, “empowers the JJCC to help the department” with some of its “historic problems” such as the “accumulation of unspent funds…”

It’s not clear whether or not the department feels the same way.

In the last few days, we have heard from several sources that some of probation’s higher ups have met with members County Counsel to determine if the department has the ability to set the JJCPA budget on its own, rather than with the JJCC.

In the statement that probation spokesman, Adam Wolfson, sent to WLA in response to our questions, he didn’t mention the Hahn/Ridley-Thomas motion, but described the “…guiding principles, outlined in the CMJJP,” which require that “programs and services, funded by JJCPA, utilize a collaborative youth development approach, leverage other county resources to avoid duplication, and increase allocations to non-profit community-based organizations (CBO). The Probation Department,” Wolfson wrote, “is committed to administering the JJCPA funds in accordance with the approved strategies and funding parameters.”

Does that mean that the JJCPA is now merely advisory?

Wolfson also added that the JJCC will meet again on April 15th “to vote on the revised plan as recommended by the CMJJP Task Force.”

He did not mention the the JJCC would be voting on the budget on April 15, as had originally been planned at the end of the March 18 meeting.

Wolfson further added that, regarding the $79 million in banked JJCPA funds, it is all basically allocated.

The vote

When the motion finally came up for the discussion, Hahn and Ridley-Thomas made strong statements about the necessity of the move.

“I find it unacceptable,” said Hahn, “that our community-based organizations that are on the ground doing the work, providing programs for our young people, are underfunded while millions of dollars lie unused.”

The other three other supervisors, at first, mostly had questions about how all this would work, if the motion passed.

“I think the board should be aware,” Probation Chief Terri McDonald said after the board members had spoken, “that we probably need a legal opinion” about whether or not the JJCC has “the statutory authority” to “direct the Chief Probation Officer. I don’t even direct the funds,” McDonald said. “The board ultimately decides about expenditures. So does the JJCC have the legal authority to, say, allocated $2 million to Program X?”

After the chief spoke, next up was Chief Deputy Probation Officer, Sheila Mitchell, who is in charge of the youth side of the department. Then there was the string of youth advocate speakers with Patricia Soung and Josh Green featured prominently.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who’d seemed wobbly on the motion in the beginning, spoke again near the end, shortly before the vote.

“My opinion,” she said, “is that too much money runs through probation—not because they’ve done something wrong,” but because the whole attitude in the state and the nation is to do things that way when we deal with juveniles—instead of through health or social services. So I think being part of the change is a very important thing. This is, some would say, a small step. I don’t know if it’s so small. But I certainly support it. Thank you for bringing this motion.”

They would still need more answers, said Hahn after Kuehl finished. But she hoped the “report back” built into the motion would give them that.

“These youngsters are precious to us all,” Ridley-Thomas said in an earlier part of the discussion. “We know they need help. It is baffling as to why there are still delays. We can’t get stuck in the status quo! We need to move!”

And so the board did.  Unanimously.

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