Celebrated Plan to Transform Former Juvenile Detention Camp Hits Snag

Camp Gonzales in 2018. Photo courtesy of the L.A. County Probation Department.

Champions for a less punitive juvenile justice system in Los Angeles had high hopes for a pilot project that would transform an old juvenile detention camp into a voluntary vocational center for older youth.

But the project was dealt a blow earlier this month after the county terminated the contract of a respected community partner, leaving some advocates and providers concerned that the county is eschewing youth development for a focus on mental health facilities.

Last week, L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors voted to terminate the $3.5 million contract for community-based organization New Earth to provide services for the Camp David Gonzales Residential Vocational Training Facility Pilot Project, citing fiscal issues with the nonprofit organization that provides education, mentoring and counseling services to young people exiting the juvenile justice system.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Harry Grammer, New Earth’s founder and president, who said that he had only learned about the potential cancellation of the contract when it was placed on the meeting agenda the week before the Board of Supervisors meeting. “Ultimately, I don’t think it had the full county buy-in from different county departments that we needed.”

The Probation Department declined to comment on the reasons for the termination of the contract and referred the media to the Auditor-Controller’s Office.

“The termination was based on a review performed by our office that indicated [New Earth] did not have strong fiscal controls,” said Arlene Barrera of the Auditor-Controller’s Office in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change.

Grammer of New Earth said the organization had been through a county audit previously

“Because it’s a high-profile project, everyone wanted to know what was going on in our books,” he said. “They found there was no misuse of any county money ever in the history of New Earth, but they saw in early 2018, we had weaker controls.”

According to Grammer, part of the problem is that “scrappy” organizations like New Earth may not encourage confidence from government partners.

“This is the largest contract we ever received,” he said. “They may have wanted to see someone like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition with a $10 million budget taking care of their dollars. I think we made a lot of people nervous.”

The Camp Gonzales project was formally approved about a year ago, though conversations around the project had been happening for much longer than that.

In June 2017, the Probation Department announced it would close six juvenile detention camps as the number of youth detained there has plunged dramatically over the past five years. Like the rest of the state, Los Angeles County has seen a precipitous decline in the number of youth detained in its camps and halls—down to about 800 youth from about 3,500 15 years ago.

The plan was for Camp Gonzales, one of the camps slated for closure, to be transformed into a voluntary residential and vocational center for young adults ages 18 to 25—an inspiring sign of the changing tides of youth incarceration.

A cohort of 60 young men—who have formerly been supervised by probation, involved in foster care or who have experienced homelessness—would stay at the repurposed juvenile detention camp, receiving career technical training at a cost of $52,000 per participant. Successful completion of the program would lead to a guaranteed job with county agencies and partners, or in building and construction trades.

The total price tag for the pilot project is $6.2 million a year over three years, with funding pooled from six county agencies and the Ahmanson Foundation, which is kicking in nearly $900,000 to support the repurposing of the old detention center into a more welcoming space.

Los Angeles Trade Technical College will provide career services to the young men. But Culver City-based New Earth was expected to serve as the project’s hub, providing life skills training and other supportive services, as well as recruiting the vulnerable population of potential participants.

The creation of the collaborative county project has attracted interest from across the state. Last June, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced he would set aside $5 million in this year’s budget for L.A. County to convert its recently closed Challenger juvenile detention camp into a voluntary vocational center for vulnerable youth, much like Gonzales.

L.A. County is in midst of an ambitious plan to create a county-wide system of pre-arrest juvenile diversion that will call on community-based organizations to work with youth to prevent involvement with the Probation Department.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting last week, Kruti Parekh of the L.A. Uprising Coalition, which includes New Earth, called the cancellation of the organization’s contract troubling for other community-based organizations.

“I have seen the extraordinary work that New Earth does with young people, bringing in the arts and healing in everything that they do and I’m very concerned that some people, including community-based organizations, are held accountable to standards that the Probation Department and the Sheriff’s Department are not held accountable to,” Parekh said.

At a meeting of the Probation Commission last week, outgoing Chief Probation Officer Teri McDonald said the pilot project serves an important need, with more than 4,000 homeless youth ages 18 to 24 in the county, many of them with prior involvement in the county’s foster care and justice systems.

“There’s no debate that there’s a pipeline into this facility,” McDonald said.

But she said that a search for a new community partner will delay the project, which she called “a national trendsetter” for L.A. County.

“We hit a slight bump in the road, but from my perspective, this is the right thing to do, this is the direction the county should be going in,” McDonald said.

But at the meeting, several commissioners voiced concern about the project and asked whether the county shouldn’t be investing in mental health resources for juveniles under the supervision of the Probation Department as part of its plan to repurpose shuttered juvenile detention camps.

A report last year found that about 90 percent of all youth held at county-run juvenile halls had an open mental health case, an increase of about 25 percent from 2015, and many on the commission want the county to expand opportunities to provide more intensive mental health services to juveniles under the supervision of the Probation Department.

“Many of us strongly believe that you could have repurposed Gonzales for a much-needed additional mental facility directly under your supervision, including 18- to 24-year-olds,” said Probation Commissioner Jan Levine at the commission meeting last week. “Probation has a mission and that’s to help the youth that are under its jurisdiction to turn their lives around. And that’s not happening in the facilities that you run.”

Even as the Probation Department says it will continue the workforce project, Grammer thinks that a louder call for more mental health in the county’s juvenile justice system may have played a part in scuttling his organization’s chances with Gonzales.

“There’s a new trend happening with the mental health model, and I think we just got caught in the way of that,” Grammer said. “Mental health is important here, but this is a pure poverty issue, if you get down to the nuts and bolts of it.

“Our young people need resources, they need education, they need jobs and money,” he continued. “To create more mental health facilities and say we’re going to try to address your brain and we’re not going to address the things that are going on socioeconomically is ass-backwards.”

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 341 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.