Q&A: Liberty Hill President Shane Goldsmith Talks Juvenile Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration

This month, Liberty Hill Foundation President Shane Goldsmith was awarded a $100,000 fellowship from the Durfee Foundation to focus on youth justice issues in the county.

Liberty Hill President Shane Goldsmith

Goldsmith said she will use the money from the Stanton Fellowship to support the county’s nascent commitment to building a system of youth diversion.

The money comes at a time when Liberty Hill, the nonprofit organization founded by an heir of the Pillsbury baking company, is pivoting to work on juvenile justice issues. It has long been involved with environmental justice, criminal justice and youth development issues in the Los Angeles area.

The grant is designed “to enable Los Angeles leaders to tease out and test solutions to complex challenges in their field.”

Last month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors endorsed a plan to create a $40 million juvenile diversion system in the county that will include building partnerships between community-based organizations and county law enforcement departments.

Goldsmith, who also serves on the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, is hoping that she can use the money as a catalyst to build capacity among community organizations to serve youth and advocate for the closure of youth detention facilities in the county.

She briefly talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about the vision of Liberty Hill’s youth justice efforts, the importance of racial equity to the diversion effort and what role philanthropy could play in helping develop a juvenile diversion initiative.

How do you envision using the money from the Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship?

We want to create a youth development system that gives young people access to opportunities they need to thrive through prevention, diversion and rehabilitation. We really want to shrink the system so that we reduce the number of young people who are arrested and incarcerated. We want to close down youth prisons that we don’t need and then we want to reinvest the dollars that are saved by shrinking down the system and … reinvest these dollars into the community’s development system. The diversion program is incredibly exciting and really could be an anchor that enables us to build a whole new system built around youth development.

The Stanton Fellowship really affords me and Liberty Hill opportunities to deeply explore what this youth development system could look like. We want to do this in partnership with young people of color, who are most directly impacted by the juvenile justice system and most likely to end up incarcerated. We also want to travel around the country and the world and see if there are model programs or systems that we can learn from in creating this youth development system.

As far as we know, the vision that we’ve begun to create in the county over the last several years doesn’t actually exist anywhere, so we really need to create it from scratch. There are lots of homegrown ingredients here in Los Angeles, but we do want the opportunity to really study all the research about what are the factors that drive young people into the system … and what are the most successful types of programs that prevent young people from getting sucked into the justice system.

How were you first introduced to diversion efforts in L.A. County?

In my capacity as a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department], they were telling me about their youth programs and they happened to mention they have a pre-arrest youth diversion program. Of course, I wanted to hear all about it. When they told me how much the officers loved it — a lot of officers voluntarily refer youth to this nonprofit for diversion — I asked why they weren’t referring more youth for diversion.

[The LAPD] said it was because the nonprofit [Centinela Youth Services] didn’t have the resources to take any more young people. Of all the unsolvable problems before us in the world today, that seems like one we could solve.

That really unleashed in me this all-consuming obsession … about youth diversion programs in particular. Meanwhile, Liberty Hill has been doing work on the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminal justice system for many years but this piece about diversion, seeing that it’s effective and has buy-in from law enforcement, is a big deal. That shows why it holds so much hope for helping to anchor this whole new system.

What role does racial equity play in how the county rolls out its plans for juvenile diversion?

When systems change is made without a racial justice lens, without specifically considering the impact on people of color, then the benefits of that system change tend to accrue to the white kids. Although the system has shrunk … and improved considerably over the past several years, that change has disproportionally gone toward white kids. We want to make sure racial inequities are front and center and addressed as part of this new system.

You have to start with the people who are most directly impacted. We have to start engaging young people of color, in this case particularly, to create these programs, to evaluate these programs to make sure they work for them.

Delivery for all these services has to come from community-based organizations. Those organizations have to be rooted in those communities and have cultural competency meaning. They have to be run by people who have been directly impacted by the system, by people of color and who have a track record of using restorative justice and other practices that we know work. And that they are led by the communities that they’re serving in, making sure that the program addresses the racial inequity of the system.

How do see the philanthropic sector fitting into the youth diversion effort?

While we believe that it should be funded with public dollars as a public responsibility, there is an opportunity for philanthropy to help on the front end: To pilot and evaluate and build the capacity of community organizations to receive those public dollars and create that system.

That capacity doesn’t exist right this minute. We need to build that, but there are grass-roots organizations and community organizations in Los Angeles that have the necessary ingredients but with partnership with government and philanthropy they can scale up and build the capacity they need to meet the need in their communities.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 257 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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