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Transforming the Youth Justice System in Los Angeles

By Sergio Cuellar
Program Manager, California Funders for Boys and Men of Color

On November 29, the California Funders for Boys and Men of Color’s Southern California Regional Action Committee, led by Liberty Hill Foundation, brought together more than 25 foundations for a meeting on the historic opportunity to transform the youth justice system in Los Angeles County.

Attendees heard from Shane Goldsmith, president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation; Sheila Mitchell, Los Angeles County Deputy Chief Probation Officer; David Rattray of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; and Dr. Jorja Leap, UCLA professor and executive director of UCLA’s Social Justice Research Partnership.

“This is an Incredibly historic moment in Los Angeles,” said Liberty Hill’s Shane Goldsmith. “People who have worked in juvenile justice for decades know this: we have the opportunity to change the system in a way we never have been able to before.”

Funders and community leaders participated in an open discussion about the current landscape of youth justice in L.A., what we have learned, and how we can work together to be active and collaborative participants in major systems transformation. Attendees left with some important takeaways:

  • Engaging with community based organizations has helped reduce the number of young people in juvenile hall over the last decade. But while the number of young people in juvenile hall has decreased by 59% between 2006 and 2017, the racial disparities have increased. Today, 94% of the youth in jail are boys and girls of color.
  • Research has shown that 95-96% of youth in the juvenile justice system were once in the child welfare system. This means that we need to focus our efforts further upstream, and address the trauma these young people have faced. Addressing youth trauma means that facilities need more training and a deeper understanding of how to work with children and engage with families and communities. 
  • We must not lose sight of the power dynamic and the narrative surrounding investment and divestment from systems. When we talk about diverting young people from the juvenile justice system, and closing facilities, we are also talking about job transfers for many employees. Job transfer and job loss is a source of fear and resistance to change.
  • In order to transform a system, philanthropy, community, research, government agencies and the private sector must come together. Research is a key player in the process of systems change. We need research to be part of the feedback loop, to be constantly examining what community, government and philanthropy are doing right, what more is needed and what is not working.

“In my 40 years working in Los Angeles County, I have never seen a moment like this before. We have a tremendous opportunity and there is a great deal that is required of us,” said UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap.

The foundation CEOs that comprise the CFBMoC are addressing systemic barriers that hold boys and men of color back from opportunity and success. In Southern California, the CFBMoC is focusing its efforts on youth development that prioritizes prevention over punishment to give young people the chances they need to get and stay out of the system. Los Angeles County arrests and incarcerates more youth than anywhere else in the nation—at great economic and societal cost. In 2016, a county audit found that the average cost of incarcerating a young person in the county was estimated at $233,600 a year. In Los Angeles County, boys and men of color also face economic and educational barriers, including low high-school graduation and college enrollment rates.

In January, the CFBMoC Southern California Leadership Team, made up of Liberty Hill Foundation, The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation and Weingart Foundation, will award up to a total of $150,000 to support local community-based organizations to reduce youth contact with the justice system, from arrest through incarceration, and to spur investment in a countywide youth development system that focuses on prevention over punishment. We will invest in grassroots organizing and other advocacy organizations in the region working on closing youth prisons; creating dedicated public sources of funding; developing community-based prevention, diversion and alternatives-to-incarceration programs; ensuring a streamlined youth-centered system rather than siloed programs; eliminating “voluntary probation”; and advancing other juvenile justice reforms.

The investments we make will help create opportunities for all young people to succeed, learn and thrive—today and for generations to come.

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