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What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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New LA Child Welfare Chief Bobby Cagle to Find High Demand, Too Few Foster Homes

LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.

"What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system," Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. "LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area."

His first priorities are "assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work," he said.

The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. "The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction," he said. "My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus."

As for caseloads, "One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads," Cagle said. "The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large."

Another major concern is "the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations," he said.

“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.

She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.

The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.

Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.

According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.

DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining.  According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.

“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.

Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.

"The work is just very disturbing sometimes," Cagle said. "You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can."

Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.

During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.

Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.

“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”

In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.

Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”

Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”

Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.

“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.

Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.

A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.

The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.

Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.

“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”

Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.

“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”

Roger Newton contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

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Los Angeles Board Of Supervisors Votes To Launch ‘Historic’ Juvenile Diversion Plan

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ambitious plan to divert thousands of the county’s youth away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems, connecting them instead to a comprehensive array of supportive services.

Speakers stepped to the microphones to declare their ardent support for the 78-page report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” which provided the framework for the sweeping strategy proposed.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, speaks to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

“This is an historic day in the history of justice reform,” Dr. Robert Ross told the board. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S.

“We know that 80 percent of the youth now being arrested in the county could be diverted to community-based services if the plan is realized,” he said. The county could “lead the nation.”

The report said that 13,665 arrests and citations were issued to the county’s young in 2015, according to the Department of Justice Statistics. And approximately 11,000 of those 2015 arrests — “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies” — would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, had the proposed program been up and running.

Ross also told the board that the Endowment had been supporting restorative justice and diversion programs in California communities such as Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. And they had promising preliminary data, he said, particularly from Oakland.

In the course of these programs, “young people come face-to-face with the people they have harmed,” and then make a plan for “making it right with the folks they’ve harmed,” he said, plus get health services that address many of the their needs. The programs are “proven to work better than incarceration and cost considerably less,” he said.

Michael Nash, director of the Office of Child Protection, said the program will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion

Another enthusiastic speaker was Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, now the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection.

As a judge, he’d long been supportive of youth diversion, Nash said. And now he was “very concerned” by the numbers of youth crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. “But this program,” he said, will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion.

Several of the speakers described the 18-month process of designing the proposed new strategy as an unusually inclusive one, involving law enforcement leaders, local judges, county officials, health experts, community advocates and young people who had themselves been incarcerated.

The point was emphasized by Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) who, with her young colleagues, had come before the board many times, often to protest a vote, such as previous motions having to do with plans to expand the county’s jail system.

But on Tuesday, McGill talked of the honor she and other YJC members felt to be “a part of the youth diversion work group,” and how they “fully support” the plan moving forward.

She also highlighted some additional areas of focus her group thought “should be robustly included in the implementation.” They believe it is essential to protect youth from the “databases that track arrests.” This was mentioned in the report, she said, but it would require oversight.

Another of McGill’s concerns had to do with California’s Senate Bill 395, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The new law guarantees that every young person of age 15 or under will speak to a lawyer before being interrogated by law enforcement. She stressed the necessity of including LA’s Public Defender’s Office and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as “key partners moving forward,” so that “even young people who are being diverted have an opportunity to speak to counsel.”

Jessica Ellis, the director of Centinela Youth Services, was also on the subcommittee that created the diversion program-to-be. She told the board how “critical” it was to have “system-involved youth” continue to be part of the “implementation phases” of the project. Centinela Youth Service has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a successful restorative justice diversion program, which has frequently been cited as evidence that the newly presented countywide strategy is on the right track.

Peter Espinoza, the director of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, had some suggestions along with his praise: the wish that “our menu of services is robust and diverse” and would include “a very serious focus on education and job readiness.” Most of the work he previously did as Superior Court judge, he added, “was aimed at the intersection of educational failure and justice system involvement.” The new diversion

When  it was time for the five board members to vote,  Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board’s chairman, asked the board’s executive officer to record a unanimous vote.

“Giving youth access to supportive services as an alternative to arrest and incarceration is both morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” he said later, after the vote was finished.

Motion co-author Janice Hahn agreed: “The best juvenile system is one that keeps kids out of it in the first place.”

This story was written for WitnessLA.

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Los Angeles Supervisors to Vote on Comprehensive, Countywide Youth Diversion Program

WitnessLA

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Supervisors are scheduled to vote today on a motion determining whether or not they will give the go-ahead to a comprehensive plan for a countywide youth diversion program designed to redirect the trajectories of thousands of LA youth who would otherwise be headed for the juvenile justice system.

A committee established this year wrote a detailed, highly researched report on youth diversion strategy, with the goal of “minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.”

The report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” outlines a three-phase strategy that, according to one of its authors, could have the first stage of the proposed new diversion program up and running within 18 months — or even less.

If fully implemented, the roadmap has the potential to make Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S., one of the nation’s “most forward thinking counties” in improving the wellbeing of kids who might otherwise struggle with “the lifelong consequences of justice system involvement,” the report said.

Although there is a great deal of variation in diversion programming nationwide, a wide array of research has established that involvement with the justice system produces long-lasting collateral damage for young people.

Justice contacts such as arrest, probation supervision and stays in juvenile lockups are not only stigmatizing but interrupt the young person’s positive development and, lead to an increased risk for dropping out of high school, along with additional childhood trauma. Even one justice system contact reportedly greatly hikes the risk of further justice system contact.

This kite string of consequences too often follows kids into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to earn, leading to increased family disruption and a markedly increased risk of adult incarceration.

About 11,000 youth arrests were reported throughout Los Angeles County in 2015, the report said, “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies,” which would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation, under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

Los Angeles County has made progress in reducing the number of arrests and citations for kids in the last 12 years. According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of youth arrests and citations plummeted from 56,286 arrests and citations in 2005 to 13,665 in 2015.

This is in part due to a general long-term drop in youth crime, which was helped when, through the passage of Senate Bill 81, the “Juvenile Justice Realignment Bill” signed into law in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state drastically reduced and reformed its scandal-plagued California Youth Authority (basically a prison system for youth), and directed that all but a very small percentage of law-breaking juveniles be kept in California’s counties instead of far away from home in the mostly cleaned-up state facilities.

But, as the report points out, the statistical change was also a product of a concerted effort by child advocates and others to reduce “youth involvement in the justice system” altogether, “through collaborative, data-driven efforts” to persuade county officials to treat low-level misbehaviors as a flag that a youth needs help, not a reason to call police.

LA County Probation is now working to close as many of its juvenile camps as is possible, and to turn those remaining camps and juvenile halls into therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environments that help and heal, not punish. Campus Kilpatrick, which opened this past summer, is the flagship and pilot for the department’s new ethic.

Juvenile facilities are expensive and have notoriously poor statistical outcomes. For instance, the cost per youth per year in an LA County juvenile probation camp is estimated at more than $247,000, with a recidivism rate (as defined by rearrest within one year) of approximately 33 percent.

In contrast, there are successful community-based organizations such as Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a restorative justice diversion program that keeps youth who qualify out of the juvenile system if they break the law. This Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program, or JADP, costs an average of $4,000 or less per youth, with a recidivism rate of 8 to 11 percent.

Another urgent reason for the new program to be voted on today, according to juvenile advocates, is the matter of racial disparities.

Even as juvenile arrests declined throughout LA County, racial disparities have grown. Youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted at all stages of the juvenile justice system, when controlling for offense, and represent 95 percent of youth in the county’s probation camps and juvenile halls.

Early in the process, the  ad-hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee, supported by consultants from the nonprofit research center Impact Justice, set out five basic goals for the new plan:

  1. Increasing and improving collaboration between law enforcement, community-based organizations and other youth-serving agencies;
  2. Reducing the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  3. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  4. Increasing the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record;
  5. Improving health, academic, economic and other outcomes for youth.

This story was written for WitnessLA.

California Tries — With Difficulty — to Implement 2 Major New Laws to Help Sex-Trafficked Kids

California is attempting to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters. But despite the passage of two important and well-intentioned new laws in the last two years, both of which affect youth who have been sexually exploited, change has not come easily or quickly.

The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services. After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar. Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.

“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.

Decriminalizing kids

Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.

The first step toward decriminalization of sex trafficked children was SB 855, signed in June 2014, which required the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to be officially recognized as child abuse. It also allocated $14 million in funding for CSEC training for county and foster care workers and implementation of support programs. However, despite the passage of this earlier law, youth sex trafficking victims were still viewed by many police primarily as lawbreakers.

Next came Senate Bill 1322, which bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.

But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another. On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California

Cultural change is a major part of implementation, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.

The 2014 bill, SB 855, marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, Heimov said. It also helped by allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local CSEC training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for the victimized youth.

But while SB 855 was a step in the right direction, it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said. “Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”

The glacial pace of cultural change

Now, even with the newer law, SB 1322, in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.

“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”

Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime, the other is the peace officer or safety role.

So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime. They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”

Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.

“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.

Maheen Kaleem

Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.

“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.

In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.

Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children

As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.

Johanna Gendelman

In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agency hotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.

“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics. And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.” Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.

Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.

“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it's a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].” The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”

With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.

Changing the before and after of child sexual trafficking

According to the California Child Welfare Council, a high percentage of youth who fall prey to sexual exploitation had prior involvement with the child welfare system, very often in group homes.

Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system. Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.

With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.

However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.  

“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes. Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”

While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.

“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.

According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:

  1. The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
  2. The Resource Family Approval process for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
  3. Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.

Goal 1: Making the shift to STRTPs

“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”

In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.

“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.

Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.

(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)

There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.

“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.

And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.

According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.

Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.

Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.

But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.

Which brings us to the second and third goals.

LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks at an event in October 2015.

Goals 2 and 3: Resources and families

Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.

Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.

His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.

But finding families isn’t easy.  And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.

“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”

As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.

According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.

The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.

But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”

Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.

Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important.  But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.  

Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.

Scaling the model  

The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.

“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.

In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources.  But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.

The legal side

Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.

“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.

“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.

“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.” At least, she said “we truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”

This story has been updated.

This story was a cooperative effort among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's Los Angeles bureau, the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and WitnessLA.

Arts Seen As Crucial to Healing Youth, Changing the Juvenile Justice System

LOS ANGELES — For Jordan, growing up in Jamaica, Queens in New York City left much to be desired. One of the few places he could go after school were the youth arts programs in his neighborhood.

“It was the thing to do after school instead of being outside or doing something that could possibly get you in trouble,” he said.

One of the programs Jordan was in is Neighborhood Opportunity Networks, or NeON Arts. It’s part of New York City’s Department of Probation and is managed by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

“We did documentaries when I was a part of it,” said Jordan (who only uses his first name). “We did documentaries about kids dropping out and how it affects the community, teenage pregnancy and stuff like that.”

He was in Los Angeles as part of the Create Justice forum led by Weill and Los Angeles-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN). The initiative brought together youth leaders from around the country to share their vision for the nation’s juvenile justice system.

Programs such as those driven by the Weill Music Institute are providing space for young people to engage in the arts in a way that they may not have had otherwise.

“Because music is inherently expressive, when you invite young people in to participate in musically, and in other art forms as well, we hear stories and we hear voices that we may not have heard otherwise, or we hear them in ways that we can take in differently,” said Sarah Johnson, director of the Music Institute.

Space for young people to engage in the arts is an essential part of discussions on juvenile justice happening across the country.

Youth leader Brian speaks about his experience working with young people in the juvenile justice system to a crowd of adult advocates.

“The arts are uniquely good at creating a safe space and creating space for inclusion,” said Kaile Shilling, AIYN executive director. “A lot of the systems that young people butt up against are set up to be exclusionary, they’re set up to shut them out, make them abide by rules, and the arts gives young people, all people, really, a space to express themselves freely.”

The Create Justice event took place at the newly opened Campus Kilpatrick youth detention facility and the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California, on Sept. 25 and 26.

Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu, California is part of a recent initiative called the LA Model that aims to overhaul the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County, which has one of the highest youth confinement populations in the state.

“It is a big shift in LA County probation from a custodial, correctional model to a restorative and supportive model and really seeing themselves as a continuum of care for young people,” Shilling said.

The LA Model is an initiative spawned from the Missouri Model, which focuses on rehabilitation and positive reinforcement to reduce recidivism rates. According to Shilling, what sets the LA Model apart is its focus on the arts.

“Arts should be a real partner in how we are thinking about transforming and supporting young people, not just a program coming in and out,” she said. “One of the things that’s really unique about the Kilpatrick Model, the LA Model, that they’re using here is a real commitment to integrating arts in the facility.”

Youth leaders draft protest signs based on their experience of the juvenile justice system.

While the use of art to heal young people exposed to trauma, who make up the majority of the incarcerated youth population, is not new, the integration of the arts to heal young people within the juvenile justice system has emerged only in the last several years.

The California Arts Council’s JUMP StArt grant program started in 2013 to support arts education programs for youth who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Meant to be an intervention in the school-to-prison pipeline, it requires grant recipients to demonstrate a direct collaboration between an arts organization and juvenile justice program.

One such grant recipient is Street Poets Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that uses poetry to build community and to heal at-risk youth and those who have been exposed to the juvenile justice system. Arts-based programs like Street Poets have been instrumental in changing the environment of juvenile justice facilities to foster healing.

“This practice empowers our youth to reclaim conscious control of their own stories, shifting them from the shadows where their stories may have previously controlled them,” Chris Henrikson, founder and executive director of Street Poets, said in an email.

Other youth leaders at the Create Justice initiative agreed.

“I do music, so it’s just another thing to relate to somebody,” said Brian, an intern at the Justice Scholars program in New York City. “It’s just another way to relate to a person. And the more you have to relate to a person, the more susceptible they are to opening up.”

Brian works with youth newly released from the juvenile justice system to give them support and help them find jobs.

“I feel like the problem with a lot of us is basically we don’t have an outlet,” he said. “Art can be used as an outlet and also art can be used as a vehicle to meet other people which will lead to internships, jobs, etcetera.”

Youth leaders of the Create Justice initiative gather to create art that represents the initiative’s aim to build a collective conscience of justice.

The ability of the arts to help young people gain job skills is paramount to the healing process for those who have been in the juvenile justice system. It helps young people see a future for themselves beyond facility walls by giving them job skills in creative careers.

“They also develop really important skills that are essential in the world today,” Weill’s Johnson said. “Creative problem-solving skills, they build confidence, they build collaborative skills, a lot of those social skills and behaviors that are essential to success in life.”

Shilling agrees the arts are important in helping young people find jobs once they leave the juvenile justice system. She notes that one in every six jobs in Los Angeles is in the creative economy.

The support of this arts-focused model has been instrumental helping arts programs expand their outreach. As a result of collaborations with AIYN, and grantee of JUMP StArts’ statewide and regional networks program, Street Poets has been able to build its programming to reach multiple levels of the juvenile justice system.

“We have expanded dramatically our outreach in the LA Youth Probation campus – going from three probation sites once a week to close to as much as nine to 10 twice weekly,” Henrikson said. “We’ve also started training probation officers in our methodology and have led four trainings for approximately 300 probation officers over the past two years.”

Awareness surrounding the effectiveness of the arts in healing young people and reducing recidivism rates has not gone unnoticed.

“This year, the legislature included a line-item provision of $750,000 in the Senate Budget Act to expand the JUMP StArts program. That financial infusion clearly speaks to their belief in its value,” said Josy Miller, arts education program specialist of JUMP StArts. 

Conversations about how the arts can heal young people who have been in the juvenile justice system continue to be at the forefront of the nationwide awareness of the ways institutions are failing young people, and how leaders can go about changing these systems.

“There’s a very, very, real struggle around how do we improve systems for young people and how do we really questions those systems in the first place,” Shilling said. “The arts are actually central and foundational to struggling with really hard, complex issues.”

This story has been updated.


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Getting $50 Million More for California After-school Programs Took Group 3 Years of Lobbying

LOS ANGELES — California after-school programs statewide were able to breathe a small sigh of relief this year after Gov. Jerry Brown set aside an extra $50 million for them from the general budget.

Getting SB 78 passed took three years of lobbying by a statewide coalition called California Afterschool Advocacy Alliance that included a local coalition made up of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, the Los Angeles City Council, the Los Angeles Police Department and more than 10 after-school programs like Beyond the Bell, After School All Stars and LA’s BEST.

“Part of the success is just not giving up, and continuing to raise the issue with elected officials so they understand that this is a real issue, there’s really something at stake,” said CEO Eric Gurna of LA’s BEST, one of the local coalition leaders.

Since 2002, California’s after-school programs have operated on $7.50 per child per day. With inflation and minimum wage increases, it got harder to keep the programs running. But now those programs are getting an extra 70 cents per child per day.

Before the new funding passed, LA’s BEST faced a $1 million deficit for years to come, Gurna said. It was unsustainable, irresponsible, and they couldn’t cut their way out of it, he said. So, they started contacting organizations that could help.

“The only reason they were coming together was because we asked them repeatedly,” Gurna said. “It was the deputy mayor, the local superintendent, the lobbyists from the school district and LA’s BEST all coming together. It shows it’s an issue of importance to the whole community, not just after-school programs advocating for funding.”

He said the key to success was building a coalition of groups in Los Angeles that might normally compete for grants and funding but were willing to make formal declarations of support for an important issue.

And also California state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat, who wrote the bill and rallied support.

“I didn’t realize they hadn’t had an increase in 10 years and that was just unbelievable to me and made me want to author it,” Leyva said in an interview. “Kids will find something to do if they don’t have an after-school program and it will be something we don’t want them to be doing.”

The bill received bipartisan support. The turning point came when statewide coalition lobbyists flew two elementary school girls out to testify and explain why their after-school program was so important to them.

“Legislation seems nebulous but when organizations can bring hard evidence and stories, that makes all the difference in the world,” Leyva said.

But the support wasn’t unanimous. The California Teachers Association opposed the bill. It was not against more funding for after-school programs, said CTA media consultant Frank Wells, but it was concerned about the funding source.

The money came from Proposition 98, which requires a minimum percentage of the state budget to be devoted to K-12 education. Allotting $50 million for after-school programs means $50 million less for school services, supplies and employee salaries and benefits.

“That reduces money available to other programs coming from K-12 curriculum. It’s devoted specifically to that so it should be funded,” Wells said.

The bill originally proposed allocating $100 million to after-school programs, but, Gurna explained, $50 million is still a victory.

“As a coalition we took it to the finish line, but we’d been running for a long time,” he said.

For Leyva, a $50 million victory doesn’t mark the end of the fight.

“This was a first attempt, this will certainly not be the last attempt. We have a long way to go.”

LA’s BEST serves 25,000 children in the Unified School District. They play sports, conduct science experiments, eat supper daily and go on field trips. Studies from the University of California at Los Angeles say the program improves test scores in middle school, and decreases dropout and juvenile crime rates.

Other organizations in the Los Angeles coalition were Woodcraft Rangers, Think Together, A World Fit for Kids, arc, EduCare Foundation, TEAM PRIME TIME, STAR and the LA Conservation Corps.

This story has been updated.


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Being a ‘Good Person’ Won’t Undo Your Implicit Biases

To become a champion of racial equity and social justice takes more effort than one might think. As a culture, we laud individuals with good character, attributing such virtue as a necessary component to ending the inequities that afflict society. We rely on our intuitive wisdom that tells us, “If you want to make a difference in this world, be a good person!”

And although this is admirable and has its merits, social psychology has demonstrated that being a good person is not nearly enough to make real progress toward justice. “So why is it that being a good person in insufficient?” you might ask. The answer is simple: We all carry implicit biases. When considering how to address the racial disparities that plague the juvenile justice system, wrestling with our own implicit biases has to be part of the equation.

Implicit racial bias is not racism, or the belief that one or more races are superior in comparison to another. Implicit biases are in essence automatic associations in the brain. The brain has the ability to make connections between different concepts, allowing us to sort through the myriad of information we absorb on a daily basis.

For more research on implicit bias, check out our recent National Juvenile Justice Network Snapshot Implicit Bias: Why It Matters For Youth Justice

This is why we intuitively know that fire equals danger, and why we associate peanut butter with jelly. Unfortunately, one kind of automatic association that our brains tend to learn, and then rely on, is racial stereotypes. In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded by subtle and not-so-subtle stereotypes. Without realizing that it’s happening, our brains absorb these racialized associations, using them to guide our social interactions.

Many Americans of all genders and racial identities associate blackness with criminality, whiteness with innocence, women with weakness and men with leadership, among many other stereotypes. These shortcuts can be activated in the brain whenever these stereotypes are “primed,” or triggered.

Research shows that stereotypes can be primed simply by seeing stereotype-consistent words (e.g., lazy, criminal), or seeing a member of a stereotyped group. We do not have to believe in these stereotypes for them to be awakened subconsciously. In fact, we can consciously object to them. However, conscious objection to stereotypes does not stop us from using them unconsciously, to interpret the people, things and situations around us.

For example, when there is a report of an active shooter, many of us will automatically conjure up images of a white male. We may not realize we are relying on an implicit bias until we have paused to think through our assumption, or received evidence to the contrary. Without self-reflection or objective-fact finding, our biases can control our perceptions.

Now imagine how implicit bias might work when we are faced with situations that involve black youth. Do we associate them with violence, culpability or recidivism, without considering the facts, their level of adolescent development or interrogating the real nature of our own conjectures? Studies have shown that implicit bias can disrupt the integrity of decisions made by teachers, principals and law enforcement officials in regards to black youth, and is a contributor to the disproportionate rate of black representation in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Defenders of justice have gravitated toward implicit bias trainings as a means to temper the influence of these negative automatic associations. And although there are limitations to the effectiveness of trainings, they are indeed important. Trainings bring about awareness and provide the tools to understand what implicit bias is, the risk factors that trigger its effects and offer recommended practices to limit its influence in our decision-making.

This can have a real impact on the decision-making processes used to decide if a juvenile should be arrested or expelled from school. But beyond trainings, there is much more that can be done to prevent us from relying on implicit bias. Specifically, we must turn our attention to the actual policies that guide the behavior of those who work or interact with youth.

Social psychology has documented a number of factors that put individuals at risk of relying on implicit biases to make decisions. Unbeknownst to us, these risks are often contained within the policies we lean on to make determinations about youth every day. One major risk factor is having broad discretion to make choices. Another is ambiguity, or when a rule or situation is open to multiple interpretations.

Studies reveal that when guidelines for appropriate behavior or social expectations are unclear, people are more likely to make decisions with racially biased outcomes. Policies can initiate circumstances where these risk factors affect those tasked with carrying out the mission and goals of an institution. For example, a policy can give discretion to identify and punish juvenile misconduct, but the factors that count as misconduct might be left ambiguous.

Language such as “major disruption,” or “real and present danger,” left without concrete guidelines for interpretation, can lead to the practice of discretion in unfair and inconsistent ways. The more discretion and ambiguity overlap within a policy, the more one is at risk of having implicit bias confound one’s decisions in the practice of the policy. The less discretion and ambiguity are present in a policy, the less risk that one will rely on implicit bias. Thus, policies can raise or lower the risks that make one vulnerable to implicit bias.

How then might we take this information and strengthen the policies we use daily? This is challenging since the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity are often common features of policies. The goal then is to constrain or remove them when feasible, and when doing so will promote equity.

Social psychology research also demonstrates that accountability measures can inhibit risk factors by placing limits on how far actors can utilize discretion or interpret ambiguous content in policies. Accountability is the obligation to accept responsibility for one’s actions (or the actions of others). A system of accountability that prevents biased decisions before they occur, and requires decision-makers to thoughtfully explain their decisions, has some ability to limit the influence of implicit bias. If we constrict risk factors within policies and strengthen accountability measures, it is possible to create a decrease in the racial disparities affecting youth in the juvenile justice system.

We are all susceptible to implicit biases; however, we do not have to act on them. The first step is the acknowledgment that our intentions to be fair and good people are not enough. Implicit bias is not about character. If we are willing to learn about it and practice the tools to protect ourselves from its influence, we are off to a great start.

Implicit bias trainings can provide the support to do this. Organizations can find sound implicit bias trainings from reputable institutes such as the Center for Policing Equity. Additionally, efforts to thwart implicit bias can be taken even further and include reassessing the policies that guide our daily professional practices. This involves identifying and addressing the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity in written policies that may lead to racial disparities.

Moreover, organizations can engage in programming and initiatives that actively support employees in challenging unconscious stereotypes that include interactions with diverse communities or the distribution of learning materials. If you don’t want to harm youth, and you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, this will include an understanding of our judgments and evaluations in radically different ways. Facing and fighting implicit bias is an honorable step in the right direction: to win the battle for racial social justice.

R. Nicole Johnson-Ahorlu is the director of juvenile justice and education at the Center for Policing Equity: She supports education and law enforcement partners in addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline” in their jurisdictions. This includes designing empirical studies to inform solutions for racially disparate outcomes for youth in education and the justice system. She has an M.A. in African studies and a Ph.D. in education, both from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Californians Lean Toward Eliminating Youth Prisons in New Survey

LOS ANGELES — California’s juvenile prisons have long had a poor reputation as mere stops on the way to grown-up prisons, overcrowded places where reform or rehabilitation were rarely achieved.

That bad rep might help explain why most Californians voice some support for closing youth prisons, according to a recent survey commissioned by the California Endowment, a private health foundation.

A majority of respondents want to close juvenile corrections facilities on those terms, with 22 percent voicing strong support and 39 percent saying they “somewhat support” closures. Only 13 percent were strongly opposed to the idea, while 20 percent remained “somewhat opposed.”

Instead of feeding teens into a system that exacerbates trauma and harm, we need to offer meaningful alternatives, Democratic Sen. Holly J. Mitchell said.

“We need to get frank about the overpolicing in certain communities and the perceptions that black and brown kids are more violent and less deserving, and how that impacts their lives,” she said. “In some cases, the pendulum has swung way too far, to where kids’ typical adolescent behaviors have been criminalized.”

Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, a private health foundation that commissioned the survey, praised Californians in a statement for understanding “what the research clearly shows: incarcerating young people is a failed strategy that must be replaced with what works” by shifting “tax dollars from punishment to prevention.”

Between June 19 and 23, researchers conducted an online survey and collected responses from 1,042 California adults. The study, which set quotas for respondents to ensure a “representative, demographically balanced sample,” found little difference along lines of gender, age, ethnicity or political party. In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement: Sixty-seven percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans voiced some support for closing youth prisons, with 47 percent of GOP respondents opposed and others declining response.  

Across the board, more people supported closing juvenile prisons — to the tune of five to 10 percentage points — after hearing about their high costs, some of the reasons behind incarcerations and the racial disparities in the system.

California spends more than $1 billion a year on its youth prison system — one of the nation’s largest — and operates more than 125 state and county lockups, according to the Endowment’s report. Of the 6,000 young people currently locked up, about three-fourths have been found guilty of nonviolent offenses such as theft, vandalism or even running away from home.

About 80 percent of incarcerated youth are black or Latino, according to the report. By comparison, about 57 percent of California youth were black or Latino in 2016, according to the census.

That overrepresentation of youth of color in our juvenile prisons reflects the troubling racial disparity that is seen in the adult prison population, too — a disparity that experts increasingly believe is a result of persistent biases that are present in modern policing, and date back to slavery.

Legislators are troubled by those parallels, and the way adolescents are facing adult consequences for what too-often amounts to childhood indiscretions.

A recent study from experts at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that the problem of biases in perceptions are particularly pronounced for black girls, who are viewed by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers” when they are 5 to 14 years old. The researchers found that this characterization “may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.

Mitchell and Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat, filed a package of bills this past spring that intend to divert children from landing in juvenile detention facilities, including a provision that would bar kids under the age of 12 from being sent to juvenile prisons, and a mandate that anyone under age 18 speak to an attorney before waiving his or her rights in police interviews. Another bill in the package makes California law reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama and bars minors from being sentenced to life without parole.

Although that last bill is rooted in a precedent set by the highest court in the U.S., Mitchell says, like most criminal justice proposals, her legislation faces an uphill battle with advocates for law enforcement and district attorneys in Sacramento. One of the bills in the package has been signed into law; the others are still in the mix.

Mitchell and Lara also want to crack down on what’s called a debt trap in the juvenile justice system — court and detention fees. The Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm, says that too often, a family’s inability to pay these fees can push the child deeper into the system. “Racially disproportionate treatment in the system leaves people of color with significantly more criminal justice debt, including burdensome administrative fees,” according to a University of California at Berkeley study.

In California, juvenile corrections have faced reform efforts for years. In 2003, advocates brought a lawsuit (Farrell v. Cate) alleging unsafe overcrowding and the rise of gangs and violence within facilities, among other problems. A consent decree was issued in late 2004 to require state juvenile corrections officials to improve safety, staff training and access to mental health, education and religious services. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation that barred low-level offenders from being committed to the state system and offered county probation systems more funding to keep more offenders local.

In the years since, Gov. Jerry Brown has called for California to become the first state to entirely eliminate state-run prisons for juvenile offenders. After years of closures, the state currently operates three youth prisons.  

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

This story has been updated.


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L.A. School Police, District Agree to Rethink Court Citations of Students

This story originally appeared on iWatchnews.org by the Center for Public Integrity.

In the wake of critical news reports, Los Angeles school police and administrators have agreed to rethink enforcement tactics that have led to thousands of court citations yearly for young students in low-income, mostly minority neighborhoods.

The Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles-based Labor-Community Strategy Center each performed their own analysis recently of previously unreleased citation records obtained from the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department, the nation’s largest school police force. The Center found that between 2009 and the end of 2011, Los Angeles school police officers issued more than 33,500 tickets to students 18 and younger, with more than 40 percent handed out to kids 14 and 10 years old. That was an average of about 30 tickets a day. A large portion of the tickets for younger children were for disturbing the peace, which can include a physical fight or using threatening or disruptive language.

Some parents and concerned juvenile-justice judges have questioned whether it’s appropriate for such minor indiscretions to be handled by police, rather than school authorities.

Arguing that heavy police ticketing of children is counterproductive, Manuel Criollo of the Labor Community Strategy Center said his group has met twice with L.A. Unified School Police Chief Steven Zipperman and Michelle King, a deputy district superintendent. A third meeting is expected to take place this month.

Criollo said Zipperman was surprised at revelations that children as young as 7 and 8 have been given court summonses, many of which include monetary penalties. Police and administrators agreed to discuss alternatives to ticketing for tardiness, disturbing the peace and “possession” offenses, which can include possession of cigarettes, lighters or magic markers that could be used for graffiti, Criollo said.

A spokesperson for L.A. Unified said in a statement that “LASPD is committed to reviewing the data and analyzing incident types in which alternative strategies can be feasibly developed, especially in areas such as truancy.”

During the week of June 18, the spokesperson also said, Los Angeles school police, “collaborating with other district offices and divisions, will begin to develop a timeline for working on identifying alternative strategies . . . Considering we are the largest school district in the state and second largest in the country, developing this timeline will take time and diligence. “

The Center’s analysis also showed that citations to middle-school students were highly concentrated in Los Angeles’ most heavily Latino and African-American neighborhoods. Los Angeles public radio station KPCC created a mapand also produced a report on the citations in collaboration with the Center.

In response to revelations about the volume of citations, district officials and police had previously maintained that court appearances would help students learn that fighting and other unlawful behavior would not be tolerated as adults.

“I’m not hearing them saying that now,” Criollo said.

A growing number of educational experts contend that introducing students to the criminal-justice system for low-level offenses actually pushes many away from school and increases the possibility of their dropping out. The areas where student ticketing is heaviest corresponds to neighborhoods where Los Angeles’ dropout rates have been highest. Criollo and others who want reforms suggested that a heavier police presence in lower-income neighborhoods leads to unequal police involvement in school life.

After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Los Angeles district agreed last year to take steps to reduce the district’s relatively high suspension rates of African-American students. As part of its review of Los Angeles’ ongoing reforms in discipline policy, the civil rights office is also reviewing the district’s history of court citations.

Criollo said it’s hard to tell from records released so far how many tickets originate with school administrators deciding to involve police in a school matter and how many are the result of officers’ own decisions to issue citations.

Photo by Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles