The news that Governor Gavin Newsom intends to permanently close California’s Division of Juvenile Justice was a surprise to many, including youth advocates, along with most of the state’s county governments, and agencies.
Yet, based on a new motion authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, which should come up for a vote on Tuesday, May 26, it appears that Los Angeles County hopes to use last week’s unexpected news as an opportunity to move the county’s youth justice system toward reinvention.
Last week’s DJJ announcement was a part of the May revision of Governor Newsom’s budget, released on May 14, as a strategy to close the state’s anticipated budget gap of more than $54 billion brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. Specifically, Newsom proposed to stop taking any more youth into the DJJ system starting on January 1, 2021—keeping them instead in their individual counties. Then the idea is to gradually phase out the state’s three youth prisons altogether, along with DJJ’s youth fire camp.
In 2019, the governor announced his decision to move DJJ out from under the supervision of the state’s prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and place it instead under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The proposed move served to signal a long-hoped-for change in DJJ’s culture, moving it farther toward rehabilitation and healing, and away from punishment.
Last week’s brand new announcement about closing DJJ completely, might transform the treatment of the youth that comprise DJJ’s population more quickly. Or it could mean that the state facilities — which, for most counties were being used as an alternative to adult prison for youth involved in very serious crimes — would now mean that most such high needs youth would wind up in adult court and adult lock-ups, instead of having the chance to bend the trajectories of their lives in a healthier direction.
Since, Los Angeles County generally sends the most kids to the state system of any county in California, simply because of its size, how LA addresses the above dilemma will be of particular consequence.
According to LA County Probation spokesman, Adam Wolfson, Los Angeles sends around 60 kids each year to DJJ.
As of Wednesday, LA County has 159 youth in the state’s four facilities.
Gift or difficulty or both
Now that everyone has had a few days to digest the news, the big question is how Los Angeles County might use the governor’s new “realignment” program as an opportunity to rethink all the puzzle pieces of its youth justice system, as opposed to the DJJ youth simply becoming one more stressor on a county infrastructure that, as UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap said when we talked about the issue over the weekend, is already “under siege because of the virus.”
The first significant move to shape how that question is answered came in the form of a new motion that will be up for a vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
“The County is in a unique position to transform youth justice in California, as it is currently developing a plan for restructuring the juvenile justice system in order to shift away from a punitive paradigm towards a rehabilitative, health-focused, and care-first system,” the motion states.
It is indeed true that the board has already made a bunch of moves in that direction.
For instance, on October 1, of last year, the board voted unanimously—and historically—to create a civilian oversight body with the power to steer the nation’s largest probation department through the process of fundamental reform. The POC, as it is already known, is also to have subpoena power via the county’s Office of the Inspector General. One of the POC’s main duties when its up and running, will be to make sure the county’s probation department stays on a clearly delineated path to reform.
A few months before the vote on the POC, on August 13, 2019, the board unanimously approved another Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl motion, which created a “Youth Justice Work Group” to make recommendations on moving the juvenile side of the county’s probation department out of probation completely.
The POC, unfortunately, while planned down to the last detail, and approved by the board, an executive director for the new oversight commission has yet to be hired, and the POC members have yet to be chosen.
As luck would have it, however, the Youth Justice Work Group has been having meetings since this past January, with participants that include representatives from the County CEO’s office, the Office of Diversion and Reentry, along with LA County Probation, the office of the Public Defender, the DA’s office, the courts, and a range of “community stakeholders.”
With all this in mind, the new motion proposes to use that new Youth Justice Work Group as the lead entity, at least for now, to shape a DJJ closure planning process for Los Angeles County.
“The closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice, a state youth prison system where youth were held far away from home, presents an opportunity for Los Angeles County to create a more rehabilitative model,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the motion’s lead author. “All key stakeholders, including the District Attorney and the courts, will be at the table in the planning process to prevent this from happening, and the Board of Supervisors will ensure robust oversight of the plan’s implementation.”
There will likely be some push-back to this strategy, particularly from probation, which appears, understandably, to be thinking about how it can take the lead in crafting a response to the problems and the opportunities presented by the closing of DJJ.
“The big question right now,” has to do with “the level of resources,” said probation’s Chief of Staff, Tom Faust, in answer to a question from WitnessLA at a virtual town hall on Wednesday afternoon. “This is a proposal that we all just found out about and we’re all scrambling, to be honest,” Faust said.
DJJ kids, he said, have some of the most serious needs, and “if those needs are left unaddressed because of a lack of resources, that could certainly cause a serious risk.”
Faust also mentioned that the DJJ youth would be with the county longer than most other kids. “I think it’s 26 or 27 months” that they’re with the state.
“But if probation could provide these youth with job training,” he said, and “teach them real skills,” allowing them to get jobs in the community, “then the fact that they’re back in our area could turn out to be a positive.” But the key is resources, reminded the crowds.
Tom Faust’s thoughts appear to be echoed in other counties across California.
“It will take significant investment and resources from the state, especially during a time where Probation is being asked to make deep cuts in other areas while facing an increased workload,” said Brian Richart, who is probation chief for El Dorado County, as well as president of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC). Like Faust, Richart warned about the risks posed if the needs of the DJJ youth are “left unaddressed.”
The Ridley-Thomas/ Kuehl motion describes a different set of “important questions and issues” that “must be addressed” before the shift begins, including a concrete plan for preventing kids from being tried as adults, “assessing available juvenile facilities, and consideration for raising the age of jurisdiction.”
With these and a list of other issues in mind, the motion, if passed, asks the Youth Justice Work Group to create a “DJJ Transition Subcommittee,” which would include representatives from all the usual stakeholders. The subcommittee would be asked to report back to the board in writing in 120 days with recommendations about issues such as the following:
a. An analysis of how the new DJJ population may be incorporated into the model and plan under development by the Youth Justice Work Group for all justice-involved youth in the County;
b. Strategies to prevent more youth from being tried as adults under the new system;
c. Strategies to increase community-based alternatives to detention options for youth who would have previously been sent to DJJ;
d. The status and capacity of the County’s current juvenile facilities to adequately serve the needs of DJJ-committed youth justice populations;
e. Preventing punitive practices that were previously eliminated or are being phased out from being reinstituted;
f. Ensuring robust oversight of the treatment of this new population, as well as the DJJ re-entry population that is currently being supervised by the County; and
g. Any budgetary, legal or legislative implications or changes needed to create the best system possible, including the potential of raising the age of jurisdiction in the County’s juvenile justice system to align with DJJ’s age limit, and ensuring the County receives sufficient funding from the State to fund the rehabilitative programs and services needed to serve this population.
The new motion appears to be asking all the right questions if this budget-driven, out-of-the-blue announcement is to be transformed into a system transforming opportunity.
Yet, nearly everyone agrees that the shift in responsibility from the state to the counties will likely occur quickly.
So, if any plan, however worthy, is to matter, it will likely need to be in place sooner rather than later.