L.A. Board of Supervisor Candidates on the Issues: Closing Juvenile Halls

Young men at an L.A. County juvenile detention camp in 2013. Photo courtesy of Children’s Defense Fund-California.

This weekThe Chronicle of Social Change is publishing a series of posts from leading candidates running to succeed Mark Ridley-Thomas on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Ridley-Thomas is stepping down because of term limits, and a full slate of candidates is running to take his place on the board, representing more than 2 million residents across parts of South, Central and West L.A., as well as several other communities in L.A. County.

On March 3, voters will go to the polls to elect his successor, who will help oversee an annual budget of $33 billion.We asked several top candidates to share their ideas on the county’s critical safety-net challenges, such as child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness and affordable housing. To hear more about these issues, join us at a nonpartisan candidates forum on January 31 at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, hosted in partnership with Southern California Grantmakers and United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Today’s question concerns L.A. County’s juvenile justice system, the largest in the state, during a moment of transition.

San Francisco decided to shutter its juvenile hall last year in favor of a more therapeutic facility. Meanwhile, L.A. County’s Central Juvenile Hall is the nation’s oldest juvenile hall and in poor repair. As the number of youth held in the county’s juvenile detention camps and hall continues to plummet, what should L.A. County do with its aging juvenile halls?

California State Senator Holly Mitchell

Holly J. Mitchell: I support the shift that is happening to decriminalize our children and youth and provide restorative justice that includes counseling, social workers and rehabilitative services. This was the purpose of the Equity and Justice package of criminal and juvenile justice reforms I co-authored that was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown. We need to update our aging juvenile halls that are becoming less occupied to meet our immediate and long-term needs. Depending on the infrastructure and zoning of the juvenile halls, these buildings could be re-designed to temporarily support homeless residents, to provide community-based programing, mental health counseling, or even become incubators for teaching new skills that connect to high growth industries in L.A. County. Ultimately, the decision to repurpose the juvenile halls should be based on the insight and needs of the communities these buildings are located in.

Former L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry

Jan Perry: I would take this a step further and evaluate all L.A. County properties and identify opportunities to repurpose facilities for housing as well as health and social service. I believe the juvenile halls would be well suited for conversion into campuses for housing for transitional age foster youth with medical clinics, mental health services, job training, and other services all in one place.

We can accomplish this by forming public/private partnerships similar to the one I initiated for the Downtown Women’s Center, where the city conveyed the property and building to the center and, they developed the project. It is an excellent way to maximize and accelerate development opportunities and reduce the cost of development. It may be possible for L.A. County to lease its land for housing development in long-term lease agreements.

Lawyer Jake Jeong

Jake Jeong: The falling number of youth in detention centers is an encouraging sign, and I hope that the overall punitive system will follow suit. We need criminal justice reform that will work for the community, not criminalize it. As an advocate for reformative justice, I believe that prison is the very last place children should end up.

When our youths enter detention centers, it’s not because they are inherently bad people – it’s because they face a host of personal problems, such as poverty, family breakdown and mental illness, that cause incredible stress. In the camps and halls where these children are held, their problems often go ignored, setting them up for a vicious cycle of repeat offenses without addressing the actual, underlying causes of their behavior. We need to completely change the facilities and what they stand for.

We should focus on forging accountability and trust between law enforcement and our community. A 2015 study showed that 80 percent of all arrests were for status offenses (underage drinking, violating curfew) and failure to comply with arbitrary requirements, such as a minimum GPA. These petty crimes should not automatically result in imprisonment, especially for minors. Oftentimes these problems are caused by deeper underlying issues that should not result in incarceration.

I believe we should also seek to partner with groups who are helping helped children in the system with their ideals of mentorship, creative arts and education. Our ultimate goal should be to change a detention camp to a voluntary vocational center for challenged youth, in hopes of transitioning them to jobs and become the pillars of our community. Youth justice is policy I’m very excited to work on because the early signs are showing much hope.

L.A. City Councilmember Herb Wesson

Herb J. Wesson, Jr.: As I have written, my top priority is protecting our children and families, and I believe it is in the best interest of our youth to end the juvenile justice system as we know it. There are approximately 1,000 youth under the care of the probation department between the ages of 12 and 17, and studies show that 90 percent have mental health issues. That’s 900 children who need treatment – not cages. The county must embark on building new facilities that address the needs of our youth, while developing a plan to use some of the large tracts of public land for affordable housing, transitional youth housing and treatment centers. Additionally, we must address these issues in a community-focused, preventive manner.

As a member of the Los Angeles City Council, I have continually worked to apply and receive grants to create safe passages programs for as many schools as possible. We are also in our 14th year of Project SAVE, which has tremendously increased the quality of life for our youth and reduced gang violence in Baldwin Village and at Jim Gilliam Park. This program was the precursor and model for the GRYD (Gang Reduction and Youth Development) and Summer Nights Lights programs in the City of Los Angeles. Furthermore, I have used discretionary dollars from my office to pay for a weekend of Los Angeles Fire Department’s Girls Camp – targeted toward young girls of color in South L.A. – and to take over 100 kids to Camp Wesson – a three-day overnight camping program at Hansen Dam run by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks for disadvantaged youth throughout my city council district and adjacent areas. I am proud to say that Camp Wesson is now in its 14th year and has hosted more than 1,700 children.

I believe that everyone – regardless of their race, immigration status or background – deserves to feel safe and secure. That’s why I hired L.A.’s first immigrant advocate, invested in the communities most devastated by the war on drugs and decriminalized minor offenses like street vending to reduce negative interactions between community members and local police.

As the next L.A. County supervisor, I will:

  • Expand community policing efforts to reduce the number of negative outcomes between police and civilians.
  • Provide increased funding for law-enforcement de-escalation training to reduce unnecessary violence in mental health cases.
  • Equip every L.A. County sheriff’s deputy with a body camera.
  • Increase civilian oversight of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to protect the rights and interests of residents.
  • Replicate the progressive gun control policies we implemented at City Hall, such as strengthening firearm storage requirements, prohibiting the possession of large-capacity magazines and supporting legislation that bans the sale, possession or use of an assault weapon.
  • Reduce 911 emergency response times so that paramedics are able to save more lives.
  • Expand access to after-school and gang-prevention programs.
  • Institute meaningful criminal justice reform and reduce recidivism rates by ending warehousing policies and focusing on educational and job-training programs.
  • Coordinate efforts to expunge convictions so that the black and brown communities hardest hit by the war on drugs have a fair shot at securing well-paying jobs.
  • Clean up neighborhood parks so children and families have a safe, free place to play and exercise.
  • Ensure that those in possession of narcotics have access to doctors, lawyers and social workers, who can help them enroll in drug treatment programs and connect them with other supportive services.

Stay tuned for more responses from candidates running for the second district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week. You can RSVP for a community forum on these issues, taking place January 31 at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, by clicking here.

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