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“What most needs explanation is not why some people are criminals, but why most people are not.”

—Political Scientist James Q. Wilson, co-author of the “Broken Windows” theory of criminology.

Like it’s adult counterpart at the LA County Men’s Central Jail, the Juvenile Services branch of the Los Angeles County Probation Department is the nation’s largest, and historically a hot bed for dysfunction and allegations of abuse. Over the past two decades, it (and the state juvenile justice system) has under gone a litany of oversight from federal and private entities to raise the standard of its stewardship of problematic youth. 

More recently, the County Board of Supervisors has stepped in to oversee a reorganization that hopefully will rectify  the culture of  violence and abuse that have plagued the juvenile halls and camps. At the same time, Gov. Gavin Newsom is moving forward with his own reform proposal to end juvenile imprisonment.

“Juvenile justice should be about helping kids imagine and pursue new lives — not jumpstarting the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” he said at a Stockton, Calif., correctional facility shortly after his inauguration in January.

These problems are not relegated locally or within this state. American justice, the law, and the prison system like othe facets of the United States governemnt are cyclic in nature, that is, they are impacted by the whim and whimsy of public emotion and sentiment.  

Rehabiltation and incarceration are simultaneous oppositional and connected components of the legal system, as  the national pysche swings between the desire to cure society’s unfortunates, and the urge to “get tough” on crime, and protect civilization from the baser instincts of these social misfits. Every political election is influenced by the sway of the law and order mandate between left and right wing branches of the political spectrum, and the urge to attract voters by tapping into that inate fear of a lawless element shrouding America’s unresolved phobias of race and xenophobia.

Regardless of which methodology chosen, punitive or resurrection, this argument has contributed to America’s status as the world’s biggest jailer, with upwards of 2.2 million people behind bars, according to the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative (https://www.prisonpolicy.org).

Compassion versus Retribution 

“Scholars of mass incarceration point to the 1970s as a pivotal turning point in U.S. penal history, marked by a shift towards more punitive policies and a consensus that “nothing works” in rehabilitating inmates.”

—University of Minnesota Sociologist

Michelle S. Phelps

 Feeding into these phobias (and their ability to garner the votes of an impressionable constituency) often has lingering consequences. No less a liberal icon than Hillary Rodham Clinton endures the fallout from her decades old comments about marauding “super-predators” (loaded with racial enuendo), in support of her husband President Bill Clinton’s acceleration of mass incarceration in the 1990s. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has recently seen fit to apologize for the stop-and-frisk tactics that categorized his reign in the Big Apple, as he ogles a presidential run.

On the other end  of the spectrum, 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis saw his White House aspirations dashed when a convicted murderer (Willie Horton) raped a woman while on a weekend furlough. He was released on this furlough as part of a rehabilitation program supported by Dukakis.

This all goes to show that the subject of crime and victimization remains and will continue to be a hot-button topic within our collective psyche, with far reaching political ramifications. The addition of underaged perpetrators ratchets things up a provocative notch.

While this debate between compassion and punishment continues to seesaw according to the whims of the public, California seems to be in the midst of a push towards theraputic care. This is in contrast to the previous cycle of punitive policies from the middle 1970s to 1990s (coinciding with the rise in mass incarceration).

Compounding all this is the nationwide drop in juvenile crime rates along with a corresponding reduction in overall crime.

In California, the youth offender population shrank from about 10,000 in the 1900s, to under 2,000 in 2008 (the National Juvenile Justice Network put the exact figures at 10,122 in 1996 to 1,254 at the end of 2010, a nearly 88 percent decrease). These reductions in incarcerated minors were accompanied by a bureucratic desire to reduce monetary budgets.

Radical changes 

“The CYA (California Youth Authority) is a complete failure in all of its missions, and something drastic needs to happen.”

—Prison Expert Don Spector in 2004.

All of this likely influenced the closure of the California Youth Authority (2005) under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The CYA was reshuffled and renamed the California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), and conditions reportedly improved along with a reduction of extended lock downs, forced isolation, and the addition of suicide prevention programs. This was a marked improvement over a system where  91% of parolees experienced recidivism (the tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior especially : relapse into criminal behavior), according to The California Center for Juvenile Justice in 1999, validating Spector’s opinion that it was nothing more than a “…factory for prisons.”

Rehabilitative rather than punitive goals ?

“…juvenile facilities can become an incubator for adult criminals, and a laboratory for future criminal activity.”

—from “How effective is juvenile detention,” June 25, 2013 by Steve Rempel

Meanwhile, Los Angeles was experiencing its own, unique issues with probationary minors. After scores of reports citing chronic abuse, in 2006 the federal government (through the Department of Justice or DOJ) stepped in and began to monitor the 19 camps that make up the probation system. 

This oversight, slated to end in 2012, was extended when the department failed to follow through on its expected reforms. The department experienced further embarrassment when it lost track of $79 million earmarked to improve these same camps. This was in addition to ongoing use of force and sexual abuse allegations before the DOJ submitted its summarized report in February of 2015 (the entire 137 page manuscript maybe accessed here at https://bit.ly/2sJVZrF).

Controversy emerged within the three county juvenile halls with rumors involving the overuse of pepper spray, an aerosol based inflammatory compound used to subdue unruly individuals in a non-lethal manner. The previously mentioned reduction in the detainee population afforded the department the luxury of shutting down its Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, and consolidate its remaining minors in its other two locations in the inner city and the San Fernando Valley. 

Flocking houses

“Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.” 

—James Q. Wilson from a 1975 quote.

With all this in mind, it is no surprise that life for thugs and “thugettes” in the realm of gang banging is not the same. From his perch “running the board (the clipboard listing the names of all probationary minors he is charged with)” in a unit at juvenile hall, “Mack” has a ringside seat to observe the mentality of L.A.’s hoodlum-in-training populous up close. As their traditional sources of income dry up, they move to other, alternative options. The dope game not being what it was, “Flocking houses,” a euphemism for the crime of home invasions is a popular way to “come up.”

Not surprisingly, middle to upper class neighborhoods are targeted for these nefarious deeds, ranging from Cerritos to the Hollywood Hills.

As a Detention Services officer, Mack takes a cynical view of bureaucratic plans to phase out juvenile incarceration. Asked to gauge the probability of the youngsters he supervises resorting to violent crimes once released to the streets, he unhesitatingly sighs, “…without a shadow of a doubt.”

For months rumors circulated among the probation workforce that Central Juvenile Hall would be closed as the inmate population declined, especially since USC was eyeing that property as part of it’s long term campus expansion. Los Padrinos was ultimately closed, under the rationale that its location made it more difficult for inmate parents to visit and attend court dates. This decision resulted inlingering rumors about closing Central and the housing of all the county’s minors in one single facility, as the move to put more kids on house arrest continues.

Veteran rank and file peace officers are adamant that this move will erode public safety.

 Light at the end of the tunnel…

“Our mission is to rebuild lives. Our goal is to do this with integrity and the highest standards.”

—from the Probation Department website.

This summer, the L.A. County Probation was honored with three separate awards for the National Association of Counties. Camp Joseph Paige north of Los Angeles was recognized for its job training program in tandem with East LA College. The city of Compton’s Violence Reduction Network was honored for assisting in confiscating drugs, firearms, and improved relations between the city and law enforcement.

Another facility, Camp Joseph Scott was recognized for its version of animal-assisted therapy, which reduces trauma, teaches compassion, and teaches participants about opportunities for careers in veterinary medicine.

…or a drop in the bucket?

“Today is the beginning of the end of juvenile imprisonment as we know it.”

—Gov. Gavin Newsom in a speech before job training students at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility on Jan. 22, 2019.

Audacious campaign promises are a staple of new, incoming political administrations. Newsom’s plan to bring a therapeutic approach to the forefront involves moving the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and revamping it into a new entity (tentatively to be named the Department of Youth and Community Restoration) within the Health and Human Services Agency. 

By doing so, he will be following a trend begun by other states who have moved their juvenile justice systems into health or child welfare agencies. As Los Angeles appears to be moving towards civilian oversight (who advocate moving youngsters away from the probation system) the possibility of transitioning to county-based programs ideally with a therapeutic slant aims to address the trauma associated with antisocial behavior. 

Plans are underway to repurpose two (out of a total of nine) of the county’s remaining detention camps into vocational centers. A newly created Office of Diversion and Reentry will be involved in this new enterprise along with the Department of Mental Health.