Ghost Youth Diversion Program Part of $36.7 Million in Unspent Probation Department Money

Los Angeles County has amassed a $36.7 million hoard of unspent money that is earmarked for community-based approaches to preventing at-risk youth from entering the juvenile justice system.

Among the unspent dollars is funding for a county-wide diversion program that has yet to serve even one child, and is at the center of a controversy about how Los Angeles County’s Probation Department has failed to allocate money to community organizations that work with at-risk youth.

The Probation Department was allocated $8 million by the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JCCC) to execute its New Directions Diversion Program, which was designed to help L.A. County youth avoid the justice system.

In January, at a JJCC meeting — the organization that allocates millions of dollars in state juvenile justice funds — a commissioner revealed that New Directions had spent only about $397,000 of its $2.97 million budget during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to a filing from the Board of State Community and Corrections.

And it had failed to serve any children during that time.

That $397,000 went to the salary and benefits for one supervising deputy probation officer and two deputy probation officers.

According to documents reviewed by The Chronicle of Social Change, the pilot project that helped launch the New Directions program showed only very modest benefits to youth in terms of school attendance and suspensions.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell has vowed that changes are coming in the way that money is allocated and spent, but more questions will arise on Tuesday at the meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion that calls on the Probation Department to increase its oversight on programs like New Directions, calling the department’s long-standing inability to spend money set aside for delinquency prevention in the community “highly problematic.”

New Directions is funded by a pot of money from the state’s Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJCPA). Using money that comes from vehicle registration fees, the state sets aside more than $100 million for funding programs aimed at preventing at-risk youth from entering the juvenile justice system.

With about $30 million coming in every year, Los Angeles gets the lion’s share of these funds, though it has stumbled in making sure the money actually reaches the community. In his motion, Ridley-Thomas cited a Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller report released on March 31 that showed that the county has amassed a $36.7 million stash of unspent JJCPA money as of December 2016. That number has risen by $11.6 million since May 2015.

Advocates and members of community-based organizations contend that in the case of the New Directions program, the department has struggled to partner with community organizations who have connections to many families in communities where need is high and, in some cases, are already engaged in prevention and diversion efforts.

They also contend that the department has provided scant information about the program and how it is run.

“It’s very hard for advocates and youth and families to trust a probation-run program when there is no transparency about how the funds will be allocated, what kind of services a young person might actually receive and what evidence they have of the kind of meaningful relationships with community-based partners who could provide those services,” said Josh Green, an attorney with the Urban Peace Institute who has closely monitored the way the county has allocated its JJCPA dollars.

“The fact that they either have not or cannot share any kind of information to a community perspective for them to sort of buy-in and for us to better understand the program, that’s really troubling.”

A Youth Diversion Program in the First District

New Directions initially started off as a pilot project in 2014 in the county’s first supervisorial district, then run by Gloria Molina. Using discretionary funds from Molina’s office, the New Directions program received nearly $850,000 so that the Probation Department could provide case management services. In the program, Medicaid-eligible youth — and their families — are linked with mental health treatment through Arcadia-based Pacific Clinics.

Probation Bureau Chief Dave Mitchell said the program saw “a lot of individual success and a lot of collective success” during his involvement in the first two years of New Directions’ existence. With support from the Probation Department, the first district program is still ongoing in parts of the county, including the San Gabriel Valley.

Mitchell said that the program addressed an important issue for probation officers who are working with at-risk youth in its system.

“One of the things we struggle with it is getting the kids to the mental services when they come to us,” Mitchell said. “[Pacific Clinics staff] would work with the youth at their school and at their site in Baldwin Park.”

Soon after the New Directions program started in the first district, the Probation Department made the decision to expand it county-wide.

The department did so without much evidence to suggest that the program was helping prevent youth from having greater system involvement.

According to statistics about the New Directions pilot program, it served 61 high-school students and four middle-school students in 2014-2015.

These numbers represent a small sample size, but show a very small increase in school attendance. After they had participated in the program, youth increased their school attendance by less than one percent. Completion of the program did not change the number of suspensions experienced by high-school students and had a minimal impact on expulsions.

Despite limited data about the program and its effectiveness, the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council voted in 2015 to award the Probation Department an $8 million contract to expand the New Directions model across all five supervisorial districts, a decision that some advocates said has highlighted the department’s challenges in working with community-based organizations.

“Based on the history with probation, we have consistently observed the major, major obstacles probation seems to have with its ability to contract with community-based organizations and service providers,” Green with the Urban Peace Institute said. “They have not been able to do that.”

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, who oversees the juvenile justice system in L.A. County, has only been on the job for a few months. But at a meeting of county officials last week, she said that the Probation Department needs to do a better job of moving JJCPA money out and into the community. 

“It’s my goal that we start getting back on track with our spending plans for them,” Mitchell said. “There are needs in the community and there should be no reason why we should have a two- or three-year delay in spending funds in the community.” 

Increasing Diversion in L.A. County

The controversy around New Directions comes at a time when L.A. County is making a high-profile push to help youth in Los Angeles avoid ending up mired in the county’s juvenile justice system, including at its three juvenile halls and 13 camps. 

In January, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan that calls for the county to embrace county-wide approach to youth diversion that would lean on successful evidence-based practices and on successful youth diversion already happening in the county.

Giving kids the way out of the formal justice system — especially when they don’t present a serious public safety risk — is an approach that could improve health and well-being for many youth, as well as save the county a lot of money. The county currently spends nearly $500 million dollars a year on juvenile probation supervision and facilities.

Advocates like Probation Commissioner Jacqueline Caster think that the county should rethink the money has spent on the New Directions program.

She calls the program “preposterous” in comparison to other existing youth diversion programs.

“When there are programs out there that are already effective, already doing it at 1/33rd of the cost, I just have to scratch my head and ask why are we spending the money this way,” Caster said.

Caster, a longtime advocate, also helped fund the Centinela Youth Services’ restorative justice-based diversion program through the Everychild Foundation. While she acknowledges her involvement with Centinela, Caster said that the county should shop around before it settles on spending $8 million on the New Directions program.

In a resolution she presented for the Probation Commission in March, Caster compared the two programs, including their costs. The county-wide New Directions program would serve 240 kids at cost of $33,333 per youth, according to Caster. Centinela’s services would cost between $983 and $2,500 per youth.

In the county meeting last week, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell said that the Probation Department has already made progress in moving New Directions forward.

By May 15, she hopes to have contracts prepared with 12 nonprofits that have contracted with the Department of Mental Health (DMH). Five of the $8 million will be routed through DMH, with the rest will be used by the Probation Department

With the New Directions money required to be spent by the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Mitchell said some of that money could still go unused.

But Green said the larger issue remains how the Probation Department can spend that money in the community.

“Anytime there is what appears to be salary dollars going to a position that is not actually providing services or playing any role in delivering services to young people, that’s really disheartening,” Green said. “In this case, that is just the tip of iceberg.”

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 318 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.