Los Angeles Pushes Effort to Place More Juvenile Justice Prevention Funds Outside of Probation

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald (left) and Deputy Chief Shiela Mitchell, right, at a Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this year. Photo: Diandra Jay/LA County Board of Supervisors

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the probation department to redouble its efforts to spend down $79 million earmarked for delinquency prevention, and spend a greater share of it on community-based organizations.

The county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JJCC) has been charged with spending about $30 million annually in state-allocated Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA) funds on preventing young people from involvement with the justice system. However, the probation department, which oversees the JJCC, has had a difficult time spending the state’s JJCPA money, especially on community-based organizations, resulting in the buildup of unspent funds.

“I think many people are frustrated by that, and I find it unacceptable that our community-based organizations that are on the ground doing the work, providing programs for our young people are underfunded, while millions of dollars lie unused,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn at the board’s March 26 meeting.

A 2017 audit found that the probation department was making little progress in spending down a growing pot of accumulated JJCPA money, and that since that audit, the amount of unspent funds has more than doubled.

A plan introduced this week by Supervisors Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas hopes to fix the JJCPA funding allocation problem once and for all. The motion directs the county’s JJCC to align fiscal 2019-2020 JJCPA dollars — and all such future dollars — with a new Comprehensive Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan, which was written by a special task force appointed a year ago specifically to create an evidence and research-based strategy for how the JJCPA funds could best be spent in the community.

Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald countered that there was “confusion” around the $79 million figure, and that the “vast majority … has been allocated and encumbered in other services,” like the county’s new Youth Development and Diversion office.

Patricia Soung, staff attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund and member of LA’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council was part of the task force that developed the new Multi-Agency Juvenile Justice Plan. Photo: Patricia Soung/Twitter

McDonald also suggested they needed a legal opinion on whether or not the JJCC had the power to direct the chief probation officer to spend money and to indicate particular service providers and programs as recipients of the funds. Later in the meeting, Patricia Soung, staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and a member of JJCC, quoted the lines in the Welfare and Institutions Code 749.2 that give JJCC this authority.

Both McDonald and Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell expressed concern that the new funding model proposed by JJCC has more than 60 percent of the budget allocated to community-based organizations and less than 40 percent going to county agencies. Historically, those numbers have been swapped, with the majority of JJCPA funds going to county agencies. Mitchell was further concerned about the proposed cuts to intervention services, like school-based probation officers, though the JJPCA funds are explicitly supposed to fund prevention activities with some funding for re-entry programs to prevent recidivism.

The probation leaders also contended the plan to reduce agency-based and intervention-focused funding was a “forward-leaning plan,” not expected to be accomplished in 2019, and that with the budget due to the state May 1, they didn’t have time to make these significant changes.

John Naimo, the county’s auditor-controller, advocated for the need for a “prudent reserve” of probation funds and a “strong planning process that looks out” in terms of using unspent funds.

But the supervisors were largely unsatisfied with the argument that they needed more time to implement the changes. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas pointed out that this has been an ongoing effort for a decade.

“Fix it, damnit,” Ridley-Thomas exclaimed, audibly frustrated. “Tell me why we can’t do any better than we’ve done.”

Several supervisors also indicated that with such a large stockpile of reserved funds, they’ve met resistance when lobbying the state for additional monies for the county.

Each year Los Angeles County receives approximately $28 to $31 million in JJCPA funds from the state that are supposed to be spent toward creating a “comprehensive plan of community-based youth services and programs” that focus on keeping LA County’s at-risk kids away from the justice system.

The funds, which are allocated on a per capita basis to the state’s 56 participating counties (Alpine and Sierra counties have traditionally opted out), are mandated to be spent to fund a range of evidence-based programs, meaning programs “that have been demonstrated to be effective.” The largest part of the funds are supposed to be allocated to community-based organizations that have proven track records for helping kids.

Yet, for years, large percentages of these funds allocated by the state have either been allowed to pile up unspent or, in some cases, spent on questionable programs like so-called voluntary probation, all of which has caused ongoing frustration among local youth advocates and the board of supervisors, among others.

In the last year or so, however, matters were measurably improving when it came to the use of JJCPA funding. The “voluntary probation” program was shut down. And the county’s JJCC, the group tasked with approving each year’s JJCPA budget, went from a passive group willing to sign off on any spending plan the probation department set in front of it, to a truly dynamic voting body.

The motion was prompted by JJCC meeting earlier this month in which a new budget for the next year’s JJCPA funds was met with community pushback over allocations for existing probation department programs and personnel.

During the public comments section of Tuesday’s board meeting, a number of advocates and representatives from community-based organizations that serve the at-risk youth population spoke in support of the motion, arguing that the community-based organizations doing the work prescribed by the JJCPA are chronically underfunded and, as a result, have had to cut programs and lay off key staff.

“We can’t afford to wait,” said David Turner with the Brothers, Sons, Self Coalition.

Celeste Fremon contributed to this story.

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 126 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.