JUVENILE REENTRY AND CHANGING ENVIRONMENTS
Too little attention has been given to the complex challenges and barriers confronting juveniles returning to society after being incarcerated. The pipeline to prison starts early in life and reflects the intersection of family, peers, failing schools, scarce employment opportunities, etc. All occur in the context of systemic, race-based policies and practices.
Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas commissioned a report that analyzes juveniles' re-entry in Los Angeles County-the process by which incarcerated youth leave custody and attempt to reestablish themselves into society. The report examines the failures and assets of the present system and recommends steps for improvement.
Last week, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Children's Defense Fund's Marian Edelman held a press conference to announce the proposal to divert probation youths from gangs and crime. Ms. Edelman said, "Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid. And we are the world's leading jailer. If we do not confront the cradle to prison pipeline, we are going to lose the last 50 years of social and racial progress. Our nation is in danger from pervasive poverty, racial disparities and miseducation that are contributing to widespread illiteracy, neglect and abuse of youth. It is far cheaper to educate than to incarcerate our children."
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who commissioned the report, added, "We must move beyond the fatally flawed view that the futures of our youths in custody are beyond repair. It is critical we invest in elevating the education and health of these teens. Making such a commitment may not keep all of them from a future behind bars; but failing to do so practically guarantees these young men-and increasingly women-will form a permanent inmate class."
The 65-page report, "Juvenile Re-entry in Los Angeles County: An Exploration of Strengths, Barriers and Public Options," was authored by the Children's Defense Fund. (Cultural differences of Black and Latino juvenile probationers were not addressed in the report. However, the authors indicate that these important differences will be taken into full account in subsequent reports. Excerpts from the report follow:
Spikes in crimes in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s were met with public fervor as our country moved toward more punitive treatment of offenders of all ages. There was an impetus to be "tough on crime," and a wave of laws was passed that put more juveniles behind bars. The ensuing massive incarceration has implications, not only for those locked up, but also for the county. Incarcerated youth will eventually be released and face the challenge of re-integrating into their communities and avoiding future criminal behavior.
The process of re-integration can be especially challenging for these juvenile offenders, given their ongoing physical, mental and emotional development. In addition to trying to transition into adulthood, they face another central challenge as they are released from incarceration-- even if they have undergone internal changes and are willing and able to modify their behavior, most neighborhoods where they committed their offenses have not changed.
Despite changes resulting from investigations of the County Probation Department, challenges remain, particularly in relation to probation camps and the re-entry process for the 3,900 juveniles released from camp each year. The report examines this re-entry process for male juvenile offenders who represent over three-quarters of all arrests and even a greater percent of those incarcerated in probation camps.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is particularly concerned with re-entry and public safety issues, given the historically high crime rates in his Second District. While juvenile re-entry may be a pressing concern for some communities more than others, a major policy issue is how the county can effectively employ human and economic resources to ensure successful juvenile re-entry, thereby improving public safety throughout Los Angeles.
The average youth offender sent to camp is Latino or African American between the ages of 15 and 17 and in for offenses against persons (43%) or property (33%). Most are held in camp for short periods of time-usually between 3 and 9 months, though occasionally for a year. Most will leave camp as a legal minor (17 or younger).
The report makes ten recommendations to better coordinate pre-release planning among various county departments. At last week's press conference, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas identified the study's top conclusions as: Minimizing education and health disparities during transition; closely examining "best practices"; data collection and analysis must be radically improved. "There is a need to be able to discern what works and what does not."
Hopefully, given the critical importance of effective juvenile reentry, the Board of Supervisors will accept the report's findings and properly fund its recommendations.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail