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County backs expansion of juvenile diversion programs


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week unanimously backed a plan to expand juvenile diversion programs that seek to keep kids out of the criminal justice system.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn proposed the more comprehensive approach.

“While there are a number of promising programs, access to them and their accompanying services, like mentoring and restorative justice, depends in large part on where a young person lives and what law enforcement agency is patrolling that region,” the supervisors’ motion says.

Criminal defense lawyer and probation commissioner Cyn Yamashiro urged the board to think about reform as “delinquency prevention” rather than focusing more narrowly on diversion, which assumes that the beneficiaries of any programs or services are already in the criminal justice system.

Many advocates of reform said the system disproportionately impacts minorities.

“The majority of kids in the justice system are eithe Black or Brown,” said Probation Chief Deputy Sheila Mitchell, who is responsible for managing the department’s juvenile halls and camps.

Ninety-five percent of those in county juvenile halls and camps are youth of color, even though White and Black youth commit minor offenses—like drug offenses, truancy, stealing property and fighting—at roughly the same rates, according to the motion.

That’s partly because schoolyard skirmishes and minor instances of delinquency once handled by teachers are now turned over to police in some communities, said Dr. Robert Ross, CEO and president of The California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation.

The result is that youth who pose little risk to public safety may end up being separated from their families or fail to finish school, leading them to commit more serious offenses and creating a “school to prison pipeline,” Ross said.

Los Angeles County has dramatically reduced the number of minors housed in juvenile halls from more than 1,800—15 years ago—to just over 600 now, according to Mitchell. That shift is due in part to lower crime rates, but is also the result of diversion efforts.

Although the board agrees reforms are needed, the supervisors don’t necessarily see eye to eye on priorities at this point.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she favored the “prevention component rather than diversion component.”

Hahn said she was “a big fan of GAP, gang alternative programs.” and would also like to see the county create safe passage for kids walking to school through gang-ridden neighborhoods, a risk that often leads to them joining gangs simply to garner protection.

Reforms could also save the county money, with authorities estimating that it costs more than $247,000 to house a child for a year in a county probation camp.

The board directed CEO Sachi Hamai to hire a consultant and create a subcommittee of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee to consider the issue and report back in four months with a plan to expand reforms.