Under a new Los Angeles Police Department program, Los Angeles youth arrested for certain nonviolent offenses will get a second chance rather than a rap sheet.
At a Tuesday meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the LAPD announced that it would expand a partnership with Centinela Youth Services that uses restorative justice to prevent the risk of future arrests and further involvement with the justice system.
“The expansion of this program, because it’s worked so well, is critical to the future of the city,” said Steve Soboroff, vice president of the police commission. “If you look at the people you don’t serve and see what they cost us and what they go on to do to the community [it] is horrific. And the ones you do serve, go the other way. You’re a huge off-ramp of the freeway to jail.”
The Centinela Youth Services’ youth diversion program is now used in 11 of the city’s 21 police divisions, and LAPD officials said that they hope to roll it out at the remaining divisions by the end of the year.
With the blessing of senior LAPD staff and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Centinela Youth Services began its pre-arrest juvenile diversion in the high-crime neighborhoods of South Los Angeles surrounding two LAPD stations starting in 2012.
Since then, the program has spread to four LAPD divisions in the Valley, and in 2017, the West Los Angeles and Newton Divisions.
The juvenile arrest diversion program offers youth under the age of 18 who have been hauled in by the LAPD a unique choice: complete a program that includes supportive services and victim restitution through restorative justice and the arrest will not be filed in court.
But not everyone is eligible. Only those youth ages 11 to 17 who have committed largely nonviolent offenses — which don’t include felony offenses like murder, arson and armed robbery — are cleared to participate, as long as they don’t have a significant arrest record.
Since 2013, Centinela Youth Services has diverted 471 youth through its partnership with the LAPD. According to Jessica Ellis, executive director of Centinela Youth Services, only about 11 percent of the youth are arrested again in the year after the completion of services. The recidivism rate for youth in Los Angeles County who have been arrested and who are not diverted is about 31 percent, Ellis said.
The number of youth arrests in Los Angeles has dipped in recent years, from 2,726 in 2014 to 2,317 in 2016.
Advocates like Ellis say that even a single arrest can present a significant hurdle to a success later in life. Besides making it far more likely that a youth will experience negative outcomes like unemployment and further involvement with the justice system, an arrest record may preclude future opportunities, like a chance to join the military.
Ellis said that Centinela’s services are aimed at youth who are at-risk of falling deeper into the justice system for relatively minor offenses, like a young girl who recently came to Centinela Youth Services after she was arrested for breaking a bottle of nail polish.
“There’s a misconception that arrests lead to accountability or that arrests serve as a deterrent,” Ellis said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
Captain Julian Melendez, head of the LAPD’s juvenile division, is the newly appointed pre-arrest diversion coordinator for the LAPD. He thinks making the diversion program available across the city will be a “big culture change for our organization.”
Melendez cautions that the LAPD needs to standardize its policies around diversion, so that officers understand how the diversion program works and which youth are able to qualify.
“It’s at 2:00 a.m. when the critical decisions are going to be made, when I have a watch commander who might have less than six months on the job and an officer with less than two years as a patrol officer trying to understand whether they can divert this juvenile,” Melendez said.
Ellis thinks that Centinela Youth Services could serve up to 500 youth under the current agreement with the LAPD that specifies which offenses are eligible for diversion. Centinela Youth Services is dependent on a combination of local and state grant funding, as well as philanthropic support. It will take some time for the nonprofit to ramp up the capacity to serve more children in the city of Los Angeles. (It also operates its diversion program in several jurisdictions in Los Angeles County.)
But the opportunity to expand the diversion program and reduce a pathway into the justice system could have far-ranging impact on youth in Los Angeles.
“If our response as a community to them is handcuffs and jail time, that goes into their head as what they’re worth,” Ellis said at the meeting on Tuesday. “If we can surround them with the support they need to get back on track … that’s where we get dropping recidivism numbers, making communities safer but more importantly, helping kids reach their full potential.”