When we first meet Gabriel, the 24-year-old from South Los Angeles seems to have turned a corner.
After cycling through the juvenile justice system for much of his teenage years — including a six-month stay at a juvenile hall — the one-time gangbanger and drug dealer now has a well-paying job and a happy marriage.
But, as we learn in a new book called “Everyday Desistance” about the transition to adulthood for formerly incarcerated youth, that trip back into society isn’t always easy or straightforward. As Los Angeles County considers new approaches to how it works with previously incarcerated young people, the stories of youth like Gabriel shed light on the lonely road to re-entry.
After cutting ties with old friends and members of his gang, Gabriel has little social network outside of his wife and family. Still living in the same neighborhood where he grew up, Gabriel is limited in where he can travel, for fear of running into old enemies or gang associates.
As a result, Gabriel does most of his socializing and shopping in areas that are far from home. A trip down the street to shoot pool or try a new restaurant is out of the question.
“I try to avoid it as much as possible because I think of a fear of going back to what I used to be,” Gabriel said in a passage from the book. “I think I’m scared of turning back into who I used to be.”
As he tries to keep on a straight path, minor mistakes can have serious consequences.
When he forgets a meeting with his probation officer, Gabriel spends the weekend in jail, though he is able to hold onto his job.
Gripping stories like Gabriel’s are at the center of “Everyday Desistance,” which examines the struggles of 25 youth who were formerly incarcerated at one of Los Angeles County’s juvenile halls or camps. All are about college age, when many young people are exploring boundaries and learning what it means to be an adult.
“There’s no group of youth who isn’t going to make a mistake as they try to figure themselves out,” said Diane Terry, a researcher at Loyola Marymount University and one of the book’s authors. “This group of youth is no different, but the consequences are just so much higher.”
Terry and co-author Laura Abrams make the case that while other populations of transition-age youth — like those in foster care or those at risk of homelessness — have received increased services and funding in recent years, youth who leave the juvenile justice system often face adulthood with little support, nor a plan that would ease the transition back into society.
The statistics for youth who exit the juvenile justice system after incarceration are grim.
One study found that nearly 80 percent return to the criminal system on a felony charge within five years. Many also struggle with education and housing when returning home, often to neighborhoods that lack many supportive resources.
In Los Angeles County, the debate has centered on how to best serve youth after they exit juvenile detention. The county has created jobs slotted for formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as the county-wide Office of Diversion and Reentry, which focuses on helping formerly incarcerated individuals avoid poor outcomes and high recidivism rates.
Abrams and Terry argue that our current way of understanding how formerly incarcerated young people desist, or avoid further involvement with the justice system, is flawed.
They see desistance as a process of complicated daily decisions and negotiations that young people make as they’re working to change their lives, not a simple yes-or-no question.
That’s because the usual barometers of whether a young person is making a change — an arrest — may not always tell the full story.
In “Everyday Desistance,” we also hear Oscar’s story. Like Gabriel, the 19-year-old is striving to create a new life for himself outside of his neighborhood.
But things go wrong one Saturday night when he lets down his guard and attends a party close to his old neighborhood that is raided by the police. Oscar is arrested and sent to county jail, despite having nothing to do with any criminal activity.
He is eventually cleared and freed after a letter-writing campaign from the community, but that one arrest does little to explain his ongoing struggles and successes.
“The idea that you then you classify that person as someone who hasn’t desisted or put them in a category of ‘This contributes to the recidivism rate,’ well, it’s not telling the full story,” said Abrams, a UCLA professor whose research interests have catalogued the impact of incarceration on young people. “Our criminal justice system doesn’t always allow for that longer view because we’re concerned about more immediate outcomes and keeping people out of jail.”
For young adults like Gabriel and Oscar, hard-earned success in forging a new path after incarceration comes with many hurdles. They are marked, not only by former enemies but also by the police and by intrusive policies like gang injunctions that limit where they can travel and congregate.
These young men have little leeway to experience a more care-free lifestyle like some of their peers, who might be partying, drinking and enjoying the freedom to make mistakes in a college environment.
“We saw these young men who were no older than 25 who were living these structured lives of men who sounded much, much older,” Terry said. “They had these extremely rigid, disciplined schedules so where they didn’t have much time for fun and to be young men. We realized how hard and lonely some of them were because they had cut off so people in their lives.”
Not all of the young people Abrams and Terry talked to are finding success after incarceration. Many are “running in circles,” or struggling to completely break free from criminal activities and enterprise.
Tyrone is one of a number of youth in the book whose path through juvenile detention camps has taken place in tandem with involvement in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system. His adolescent and young adult years have been spent bouncing between groups homes, juvenile detention and transitional housing, and he is wary of the systems that have shaped the course of his life.
So far, Tyrone’s efforts to desist have been hampered by a lack of stable housing and ability to understand the right path to tread, with few financial or family resources to draw on. One positive drug test or another violation of the terms of his nonprofit housing could leave him back on the street.
Abrams and Terry suggest ways in which agencies can do better to reach youth like Tyrone, who at 19 is prone to making mistakes like other youth at his age. Part of the solution might be to differentiate between mistakes made by someone at age 18 versus at, say, age 40.
“In the same way that we do with substance abuse work, we should understand that relapse is a part of recovery: you have a back-up plan and you work around the relapse,” Terry said. “The criminal justice system should do the same for young adults who make mistakes.”
In “Everyday Desistance,” the authors write that while it is relatively easy for youth in Los Angeles County to get entangled in the juvenile justice system, it is far harder to break free of the cycle of probation violations, arrest and continued supervision.
Abrams hopes that readers of the book better understand the enormous pressures facing even youth who are on the right track after experiencing incarceration.
“We want people to know that we can allow young people, regardless of their history, some room to have time to be young adults, to have that period of feeling freedom and exploration,” she said. “These are young people who have really survived quite a bit of trauma and homelessness, experiences that are quite challenging and they’re hanging in there.
“I think they deserve our support, and they deserve to be able to get beyond the labels.”