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Jacqueline Caster Headshot

Los Angeles' Juvenile Justice Fiasco

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We can go a long way toward helping California's budget crisis simply by reforming Los Angeles County's antiquated juvenile justice system.

California houses the nation's largest jail population, averaging 253,000 adult inmates per day in its state, county and local facilities combined. This year, operation of the State facilities alone will run $11 billion (not even including $8 billion the Federal government mandated California to spend on inmate healthcare.)

There are some who estimate that up to 70% of these inmates were once incarcerated as juveniles, with Los Angeles County juvenile detention facilities serving as the most popular "alma mater." (Even if this figure actually turned out to be less than half of that, it would disturbing.) Currently, over 15,000 children are admitted to Los Angeles' youth facilities annually which are currently threatened with Federal takeover for violations including improper use of force, poor record-keeping and staff training, high turnover, failure to keep youth safe from each other and high child/staff ratios. Children are warehoused with little rehabilitation, sometimes sleeping 100 to a room. It is thus no surprise that estimated recidivism is 75% (35% commit a new crime within a year, 40% violate probation necessitating re-incarceration.)

Annual cost per youth is roughly $125,000, more than twice Harvard's annual tuition. Unfortunately, subjects learned are more likely to be car theft and meth-making, as serious and minor offenders are co-housed.

A systemic solution would be to dismantle the pipeline by investing in prenatal care, early childhood and elementary education, and better social services -- steps the Obama Administration is hoping to take with stimulus money. The Administration understands that prison population projections are based upon third-grade literacy rates and that 70% of fourth graders not reading at grade level will become incarcerated later in life.

But another approach must also be undertaken. Los Angeles must adopt the State of Missouri's much-emulated juvenile justice program where annual youth recidivism rates have been a sustained 7% - one tenth the Los Angeles rate -- with an average annual cost per child of $44,000 -- roughly a third of Los Angeles' expenditure.

Since the 1980s, Missouri has abandoned huge Dickensian institutions in favor of small locked group homes within the children's own communities. Each home has trained staff that individualizes evidenced-based therapeutic programs for each child, involving his family. The children also learn teamwork. The program has been successfully implemented across the nation.

Los Angeles' Probation Chief admits that parental involvement is key and that his system provides none. Additionally, of the 19 county detention camps, only 3 have any semblance of a drug program and none have gang intervention programs -- absurd since the great proportion of children are gang-affiliated with many incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Governor Schwarzenegger set aside $100 million for new rehabilitative juvenile facilities statewide, but Los Angeles lost its chance for such dollars by not submitting viable proposals. Also although the State has given Los Angeles $21 million to fund evidence-based programs treating children close to home, such services have yet to be provided.

Some county supervisors want to learn about Missouri. Hopefully, the rest will too eventually. The obstacle seems to be their fear constituents might view them as "soft on crime" for taking a therapeutic approach instead of wielding a big stick. However, the big stick approach has only diverted tax dollars away from schools, police and other city needs and has simply warehoused disenfranchised children, increasing their anger, fear and criminality. It's time Los Angeles stopped contributing to the California budget crisis by unnecessarily spending millions and millions of dollars to make the community less safe and started implementing proven, effective community responses at a fraction of the cost.