05/03/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

L.A. Riots: A Rose Grows Through Concrete 20 Years Later

Twenty years after the L.A. riots, can philanthropy play a meaningful role in addressing the gross over-representation of Black males in prisons and correctional facilities in California?

That was the unusual question posed to dozens of diverse adults in meetings throughout 2010 hosted by the California Community Foundation. Two years later, the question is being answered through a new partnership between private, public and nonprofit sector institutions and the Black community. It's a philanthropy-driven, community-based, goal-oriented initiative called BLOOM, which stands for Building a Lifetime of Opportunities and Options for Black Men, beginning now in South L.A.

BLOOM is intended to tackle one of the most challenging and ignored facets of the problem: Specifically, 14 to 18-year-old black males who are or have been under County probation supervision. I can tell you after more than 30 years working on behalf of children that these kids are among the most misunderstood, prejudged, and prejudiced against and underserved of any groups in our community. Thousands of these kids are being written off and left to end up in prison for years, or a lifetime, instead of helped to become responsible, educated and socially-connected adults.

We can no longer afford it financially, socially or morally. Incarceration, even in a youth probation camp, costs far more annually than a good public education or a good-paying job. Warehousing a youth in an LA county probation camp costs more than $100,000 a year, and housing an inmate in a California state prison is $240,000 a year for a juvenile or $50,000 for an adult. These systems fail 70 percent of the time. That is the recidivism rate within three years.

The current response to juvenile crime has made the problem worse and caused more harm to youth in the system. All over the country, community-based alternatives to detention have demonstrated greater success at substantially lower costs ($1,000-$20,000 a year) addressing the issues that brought these young people into the system in the first place. There are, fortunately, several nonprofit organizations already at work serving these kids locally. Through BLOOM, some of these nonprofits have begun receiving grants and technical assistance to improve their capabilities and expand their offerings. Investing in BLOOM are several public and private foundations, including the California Community Foundation. Even individuals and families can make contributions to BLOOM through the community foundation.

We also need to create educational and employment opportunities such as internships and apprenticeships, full-time jobs, academic scholarships, and provide mentors for these youth.

The answer to the community foundation's question was, yes. The bigger questions now are, are we willing to change how we as individuals, policy makers, and as a society treat Black male youth? Are we willing to give young people in our community who have had serious, often unimaginable, challenges, a FIRST chance?