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Why a ‘reimagined’ detention system for juveniles has stalled in L.A. County

The most dramatic reform would take juvenile detention out of the control of the Probation Department and instead place it under Youth Development’s oversight


Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

By Jason Henry
Pasadena Star-News, Calif.

LOS ANGELES — Four years ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors backed a sweeping reform package that proposed closing the county’s juvenile halls by 2025 and placing the youth into smaller, more homelike “safe and secure healing centers.”

The progressive policy pledged to invest in a new Department of Youth Development — an agency eventually formed in 2022 — that would focus on programs to keep children and teens out of the juvenile justice system, while simultaneously shifting those already detained from jail-like institutions to “a more rehabilitative, care-first model.”

The proposal, dubbed “Youth Justice Reimagined,” was developed over more than a year by a working group that included advocates, law enforcement, defense attorneys and prosecutors. The most dramatic reform would take juvenile detention out of the control of the Probation Department in light of its “history of reform failures” and instead place it under Youth Development’s oversight.

Now, that reform may never come to fruition due to unexpected legal constraints, while other key components of the policy inch forward, years behind schedule.

The first of the safe and secure healing centers, originally envisioned to replace most of the juvenile halls and camps by 2025, will launch as a pilot program next year and is expected to house about six juveniles. Youth Development, among the smallest of the county’s departments, isn’t expected to grow much in the coming year either. The county’s recommendations for fiscal year 2024-25, released in April, set aside $75 million and 54 positions for the department, about $5 million and 58 less employees than requested.

By comparison, the Probation Department is slated to receive $439 million to run its troubled juvenile halls next year and has announced it will soon unveil a two-year plan for those facilities, prompting reform advocates to question whether the county has turned its back on the promised transition.

“It certainly feels like the county’s priorities have shifted from Youth Justice Reimagined to supporting probation and maintaining their power,” said Aditi Sherikar, a senior policy advocate for the Children’s Defense Fund California, one of organizations that worked on the proposal. “The plan should be, in two years how are we going to phase out this abusive department, not how are we going to strengthen it.”

State law a barrier

Though Youth Justice Reimagined envisioned cutting the Probation Department out of the equation completely, state law squarely places the responsibility for holding juvenile offenders with a chief probation officer and a probation department. Millions of dollars in annual state and federal funding include similar specificity.

There isn’t much appetite to change the law either.

A bill last year from Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer made an attempt, but it merged the issue of expanding the authority to oversee juveniles with a seemingly unrelated amendment that would grant supervisors the ability to fire an elected sheriff. The probation side was subsequently carved out in revisions and the bill quietly died at the end of the legislative cycle.

“There is no one up in Sacramento willing to carry legislation that would allow DYD to assume the roles that Youth Justice Reimagined calls for,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in an interview. “I can’t dismiss the frustration, but I can say that, as a board, we are all invested, and I know I personally am, in making sure that we provide everything necessary for these kids.”

Youth Justice Reimagined’s ambitions are the end goal, she said, even if the logistics of accomplishing it have to change. Barger expressed confidence that Probation Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa can do what a string of predecessors could not and turn the Probation Department around.

There is no reason the Probation Department’s often-praised implementation of a care-first model at Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu can’t be replicated elsewhere, she said.

If the law changes, “we’ll cross that bridge, but right now our probation chief’s focus is on changing the culture within probation and recognizing that we’re no longer carceral alone,” Barger said. “It is about providing therapy and rehabilitation. We can all argue whether we like probation or not; we have no choice.”

DYD will continue to build a support structure for “justice-involved youth” inside and outside of the juvenile halls, she said.

Years of scandal, mismanagement

Viera Rosa, hired following the ouster of his predecessor in 2023, inherited years of scandal, understaffing and mismanagement. Despite a nonstop barrage of crises since then, the department managed to narrowly avoid the closure of its two largest facilities in April. Two recent inspections suggest both facilities have maintained the state’s minimum standards over the last month.

Viera Rosa , during a presentation to the board in May, described the department as reaching a turning point where it can now focus on improving the quality of the county’s facilities, rather than solely putting out fires. But critics remain skeptical as a parade of probation chiefs over the last decade have promised change while conditions in the juvenile halls continued to deteriorate.

Youth Justice Reimagined was meant to break that cycle, advocates say.

One supervisor speaks up

Though all five supervisors supported a March 2023 motion reaffirming their desire to “take concrete steps to move the county’s youth justice system away from the Probation Department and into DYD,” only Barger accepted an interview request for this story. Supervisors Lindsay Horvath and Janice Hahn provided statements about the current legal limitations.

And Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The board is still growing and expanding the role Youth Development “plays with our justice involved youth,” Hahn said in her statement.

“The reality is that under current state law, it is still the County Probation Departments that are in charge of running youth detention facilities, so we have to hold them accountable for reforming and meeting the needs of the youth who are in their custody and care while we continue to invest in and expand our Department of Youth Development,” Hahn stated.

Horvath stated she would “move every dollar from juvenile probation to our Department of Youth Development " if she could.

“But under state law and oversight, we are bound to the facilities and staff we have, so we must work within the system to bring change, too,” she stated. “State partnership and creative thinking are essential in this moment, as is removing every sworn officer who abuses their authority and our young people.”

Youth Justice Reimagined is “our mandate,” she added.

“Entrenched challenges and an apathetic culture will not stand in the way of a better future,” she stated.

Last year, Horvath and Mitchell came out publicly against a bill that would have pledged up to $1 billion to Los Angeles County for infrastructure improvements at its embattled juvenile camps and halls, writing that a “department with a record of mismanagement so severe the state had to intervene should not be rewarded with taxpayer dollars.”

Advocates don’t buy ‘excuse’

Sherikar, of the Children’s Defense Fund, called the need for legislation an “excuse” that doesn’t hold water with advocates. The supervisors could increase DYD’s budget to the level that Youth Justice Reimagined requires, yet they haven’t, she said.

“Any funding that DYD is getting, it’s not coming out of the probation budget, which inherently limits the amount of funding they’re going to get,” she said. “The legislation isn’t happening, the scale-up isn’t happening, and they get to sit on their hands and say there is nothing we can do.”

Probation Oversight Commissioner Sean Garcia-Leys, co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, said that while Youth Justice Reimagined isn’t dead, there isn’t much momentum either. The Department of Youth Development currently acts in more of a supporting role than the lead imagined four years ago.

“The Department was created, it’s got leadership, but it needs a much larger budget,” Garcia-Leys said. “It needs to grow exponentially before it can do anything substantive in terms of replacing the duties of probation. There are no immediate plans to make that happen.”

Did reforms spur staffing crisis?

Los Angeles County’s unveil of Youth Justice Reimagined in 2020 and its subsequent slow rollout is partially to blame for the low morale among probation officers and the department’s ongoing staffing crisis, sources say. Though the county stated “no layoffs are proposed” from day one, probation officers see the policy as a threat to their futures. The general uncertainty also deters new hires desperately needed in the juveniles halls in the interim.

“That was a major contributor to the spiral of people not coming to work,” Garcia-Leys said. “All of that early talk about YJR really caused a lot of problems. All of those problems would have been bumps in the road if we were actually doing YJR at the time, or seriously doing it, but we weren’t.”

He suspects those concerns are why Youth Justice Reimagined is talked about less now.

“We can’t let the existing Probation Department fall apart while whatever other plans for DYD are happening,” he said.

Early progress

DYD has made progress on a number of Youth Justice Reimagined’s goals in the roughly two years since its creation. It established a credible messenger program, pairing detained youth with mentors with similar life experiences; expanded the county’s diversion program to include 35 law enforcement agencies; and is working with the juvenile courts, the Probation Oversight Commission and others to ensure that youth aren’t overcharged or placed within the juvenile halls unnecessarily. Reducing the juvenile hall’s population would allow the county to manage the facilities with its dwindled staff.

“I think we’re definitely on the right track,” said David Carroll, director of the Department of Youth Development, in a statement. “Some things are moving slower than we’d like, but we’re definitely moving as fast as possible to reach the vision of YJR given the resources that we have and the legislative barriers that we face.”

Roughly 95% of 700 youth enrolled in the first cohort of the diversion program stayed out of trouble over the next year, compared to a reoffense rate of 20% among those who chose not to participate, according to data provided by DYD. A diversion costs the county about $40,000 less than a new arrest would.

Holistic services

The department’s first “safe and secure healing center” will initially be focused on providing space for girls and gender expansive youth, two demographics the county has identified as a priority for decarceration. The hope is that the small, homelike facilities will eventually exist throughout the county and offer a “a range of security levels and holistic services, opportunities for youth to step down to lower security settings, and improved reentry support for youth unable to return home or be served in their communities.”

The healing centers would have mental health, substance abuse and other treatment programs tailored to address each youth’s individualized needs and are meant to minimize the “harmful impacts of institutionalization,” according to Youth Justice Reimagined.

Under current law, placement into one of the healing centers isn’t guaranteed and will be up to a judge’s discretion, potentially limiting its overall reach.

Even if state law does not change, the department wants to eventually create enough healing centers to take in all of the roughly 50 youth in custody at the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility, a unit in Sylmar that houses juveniles who have been sentenced for serious crimes and returned to the county’s custody to serve out their time following the dissolution of California Department of Juvenile Justice.

Los Angeles County has not finalized its budget for next year and there is still hope among DYD officials that they’ll receive their full request. The department asked for 112 positions, but is only slated to receive one under the current proposal.


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