Promising Los Angeles Juvenile Diversion Program Anxiously Awaits Hoarded Probation Cash

The future of a program with a track record of success hangs in the balance while Los Angeles County leadership sits on millions of dollars earmarked to keep kids from winding up in jail.

Los Angeles County Probation received approximately $26 million last year under California’s 2000 Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA). The program provides over $100 million a year to California counties to use on community-based programs and services aimed at keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system. But oddly L.A. County has failed to spend a substantial portion of that money.

As a July 2015 audit showed, L.A.’s Probation Department has been sitting on nearly $22 million – or roughly a quarter of all the JJCPA funds it received over the past four years.

After news of the unused juvenile justice dollars came to light in July, the Board of Supervisors directed that $5 million of the hoarded cash be put in the hands of the board, with $1 million allotted to each supervisorial district.

Centinela Youth Services (CYS), which runs the only pre-arrest juvenile diversion program in the state, is one of the promising, community-based programs that has drawn interest from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes most of South L.A., pledged his $1 million to support the Inglewood-based organization. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has committed half of her allotment—$500,0000—to CYS in order to expand the juvenile diversion program into the San Fernando Valley.

More than six months later, however, the remaining funds are yet to be allocated, according to advocates, leaving CYS’s long-term prospects still up in the air.

Jacqueline Caster, a Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner and president of the Everychild Foundation that first funded the CYS diversion program, would like to see that JJCPA money spent.

“It’s absurd. This is money that is sitting there dormant and is supposed to be put to work keeping kids out of the system,” Caster said, “It would be a tragedy if they drag this out, and the program has to go on hiatus. There needs to be a permanent income stream.”

Probation Department Deputy Chief Reaver Bingham says that the JJCPA money must be approved by the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, a decision-making body overseen by the Probation Department, and is also subject to lengthy county contracting practices.

“We want to do this as quickly as possible, but it’s a process,” Bingham said. He said the Probation Department recently engaged with focus groups from community–based organizations about how to spend the JJCPA surplus, but putting new programs in place could take more than year, thanks to the contracting and review process.

The delay in accessing funds from the JJCPA money is creating an uncertain future for the ability of CYS to help its young clients, such as 15-year-old Angelica from South Los Angeles. (“Angelica’s” name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

After she was caught trying to steal a shirt from Target last year, the police offered Angelica and her family a novel choice.

If Angelica completed Centinela’s six-month program, which provides victim restitution and therapeutic services, the troubled teen could walk away without any trace of the incident on her record.

With the help of counseling, tutoring and other services, Angelica is now striving for good grades and trying to make positive choices in a neighborhood where gangs are prevalent.

CYS has earned acclaim from local officials for the low recidivism rate of its graduates. A pilot project created in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, CYS has given more than 300 at-risk youth a year like Angelica—and the law enforcement officers who arrest them— an alternative to business as usual.

“The pilot showed us it’s a win-win situation for the youth and the county,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “If you can help a young person turn their life around, you’re going to save a lot of money down the line. You’re not going to have consistent juvenile offenses, you’re not going to have an adult offender.

Based on a similar effort in Miami, the CYS program largely targets youth between the ages of 9 and 17 who have committed their first or second offense.

Youth in South L.A. who are arrested for robbery, assault and drug sales are eligible, pending the discretion of the police. Most misdemeanor and felony charges for youth are eligible for Centinela’s diversion program, except for more serious offenses like rape, murder and the use of firearm (legally referred to as 707(b) offenses). 

More than 1,200 youths have been diverted from the juvenile-justice system in the past three years, thanks to the CYS program. According to the organization’s numbers, between 8 and 11 percent of youth who come through CYS are arrested again in the year after the completion of services.

After concluding a three-year pilot project last year with two LAPD stations in South Los Angeles, CYS is now poised to open a second program in the San Fernando Valley, in partnership with the LAPD’s Foothill and Van Nuys stations.

Yet looming over these successes and hope for expansion in other parts of the city is the still unresolved issue of the program’s sustainability. CYS will need $1.8 million to set up a restorative center in the Valley alone.

Even with the money already pledged by Supervisors Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas, CYS supporters say that continuing the nonprofit’s diversion efforts will require long-term support from the county.

For L.A.P.D. Deputy Chief Bob Green, an early supporter of the juvenile diversion program in South L.A., CYS offers a rare opportunity for the police department to change the system. But without greater county leadership, he fears the moment may pass, and it will be too easy for old policing habits to return.

“Centinela Youth Services has got huge potential to build on their work, but there needs to be a commitment,” Green said.

“If funding dries up, then you’re right back where you started: hook and book.”

Check The Chronicle of Social Change on Monday for an in-depth look at how the Centinela Youth Services diversion program is using brain science and restorative justice to offer some youth in South Los Angeles an alternative to the juvenile justice system.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 257 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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