How Los Angeles County Expanded Youth Diversion

Posted August 15, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
An excerpt from the guide in its colorful, animated style. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Division of Youth Diversion and Development.

An excerpt from the guide in its colorful, animated style. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Division of Youth Diversion and Development.

A new guide from Los Ange­les Coun­ty describes how com­mu­ni­ty out­rage over youth incar­cer­a­tion and over­crim­i­nal­iza­tion led activists and prac­ti­tion­ers to trans­form the way the legal sys­tem responds to young peo­ple in trou­ble with the law.

Design­ing Youth Diver­sion and Development

The guide tells the sto­ry of the even­tu­al col­lab­o­ra­tion among com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions, young peo­ple, advo­cates and pub­lic sys­tems on a plan to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly steer youth in Los Ange­les Coun­ty away from the legal sys­tem at the point of arrest — or into com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vices in lieu of for­mal court pro­cess­ing. It makes the case for dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ing diver­sion by exam­in­ing why so many young peo­ple were land­ing in the juve­nile sys­tem in the first place. 

The guide was writ­ten with input from young peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and advo­cates, pro­duced by the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Divi­sion of Youth Diver­sion and Devel­op­ment (YDD) and fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This guide tells an impor­tant, trail­blaz­ing sto­ry about the capac­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties and their young peo­ple to not only apply pres­sure as activists but also to be viable part­ners in the design and imple­men­ta­tion of new approach­es to juve­nile jus­tice reform,” says Jaqui­ta Mon­roe, Casey Foun­da­tion senior asso­ciate. The Casey Foun­da­tion sup­port­ed the chron­i­cling of this sto­ry to inspire juris­dic­tions across the coun­try who may be seek­ing to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand diver­sion for young peo­ple, and cen­ter and uplift youth lead­er­ship in the process.”

The guide exam­ines a decade-long push from young peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ty groups for col­lab­o­ra­tive solu­tions to school tru­an­cy, youth incar­cer­a­tion and the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Black and Lati­no youth among those pushed out of school and into the harsh­est end of the jus­tice sys­tem. The guide describes how this per­sis­tent advo­ca­cy led to a new approach to reform among local juve­nile jus­tice prac­ti­tion­ers, com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions and oth­er stake­hold­ers — one that pri­or­i­tized input from the young peo­ple affect­ed by jus­tice sys­tem involvement.

What the guide covers

The guide covers:

  • how the YDD mod­el came to be and how it works;
  • a chronol­o­gy of what it took to design and imple­ment the approach;
  • how com­mu­ni­ties can invest pub­lic dol­lars to sup­port youth development;
  • how to fos­ter col­lab­o­ra­tive plan­ning and account­abil­i­ty among coun­ty part­ners; and
  • ways to cen­ter young peo­ple affect­ed by the jus­tice sys­tem in pro­gram and pol­i­cy design — and how to sup­port their involve­ment through­out the lengthy, non­lin­ear process of sys­tem reform. 

Peo­ple shouldn’t just get this oppor­tu­ni­ty because they hap­pen to live in [Los Ange­les] coun­ty. Right now, if they live one mile over in any giv­en direc­tion, they could see a dif­fer­ent response,” says Refu­gio Valle, direc­tor of the Divi­sion of Youth Diver­sion and Devel­op­ment. But the guide, he adds, offers impor­tant insight on how peo­ple in oth­er places can get start­ed. The steps we took might need to look dif­fer­ent for your com­mu­ni­ty, but this is how we did it. It’s some­thing that can be done.”

Pre­serv­ing and empow­er­ing youth and com­mu­ni­ty voice

The guide includes quotes, insights and draw­ings from some of the young peo­ple who helped set the vision for and plan the expan­sion of diver­sion in the coun­ty. Many of those young peo­ple have per­son­al involve­ment with the jus­tice system.

Kent Men­doza, man­ag­er of advo­ca­cy and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing for the Anti-Recidi­vism Coali­tion and par­tic­i­pant in the YDD devel­op­ment process, affirmed the val­ue that young peo­ple who have served time in secure facil­i­ties bring to pol­i­cy or reform dis­cus­sions. If we’re try­ing to talk about undo­ing any sys­tem or any­thing like that, we have to learn from peo­ple who actu­al­ly lived this expe­ri­ence,” Men­doza says. They’ve been the clos­est to the prob­lems and are the clos­est to the solutions.”

L.A. County’s sto­ry val­i­dates com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers’ expe­ri­ence with the sys­tem as the very exper­tise nec­es­sary to reform it,” says Bur­gun­di Alli­son, the Foundation’s asso­ciate direc­tor for diver­sion and prevention.

What Diver­sion Looks Like in Los Ange­les County

The YDD mod­el works this way: In lieu of arrest, for­mal fil­ing of a peti­tion in court or even adju­di­ca­tion by a judge, the young per­son may be referred to com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions by law enforce­ment, the coun­ty dis­trict attorney’s office, pro­ba­tion or the courts. YDD iden­ti­fies these ser­vice providers and pro­vides fund­ing, coor­di­na­tion and oversight.

The most com­mon cat­e­gories of ser­vices and activ­i­ties that youth have asked for so far are school-relat­ed sup­port, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, recre­ation­al and arts activ­i­ties and work readi­ness and career devel­op­ment. The orga­ni­za­tions are expect­ed to pro­vide pro­gram­ming that speaks to youth, with staff that have sim­i­lar cul­tur­al back­grounds as the young peo­ple and are skilled in build­ing trust­ful rela­tion­ships with them. Also, the ser­vice providers address the harm or trau­ma that the youths may have expe­ri­enced in their lives. The length of time a young per­son spends with the orga­ni­za­tion depends on the youth’s goals and can be any­where from three months to a year, with the aver­age length being about six months. They are suc­cess­ful once they sub­stan­tial­ly com­plete their goals.

The county’s diver­sion mod­el is based on evi­dence that avoid­ing arrests and for­mal court pro­cess­ing typ­i­cal­ly improves youth well-being and leads to few­er harm­ful out­comes. An illus­tra­tion in the guide shows youth who are arrest­ed are more like­ly to be charged again than sim­i­lar youth who are referred to deten­tion. The chances of a young per­son being charged with anoth­er crime after they are arrest­ed and adju­di­cat­ed in court are 20% to 30%. That drops to 11% to 15% for youth who are arrest­ed but not for­mal­ly processed in court and drops fur­ther to just 5% to 10% for youth who are divert­ed by law enforce­ment before they are arrested.

A sketch by a mem­ber of the group work­ing on the col­lab­o­ra­tive his­to­ry. Image cour­tesy of the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Divi­sion of Youth Diver­sion and Development.

What Led to Los Ange­les County’s Dra­mat­ic Expan­sion of Youth Diversion

A report by the Los Ange­les Coun­ty­wide Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Coor­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee Youth Diver­sion Sub­com­mit­tee and the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Chief Exec­u­tive Office explains that before the 2019 launch of the YDD mod­el, young peo­ple in Los Ange­les Coun­ty were drawn into juve­nile court sys­tems for infrac­tions as sim­ple and com­mon as being late to class, stay­ing out past cur­few or jump­ing a sub­way turnstile. 

Respons­es were inequitable: Black and Lati­no youth were more like­ly to be arrest­ed and face more puni­tive con­se­quences than their white peers. Schools around the coun­ty had become prime entry points for the juve­nile sys­tem; Comp­ton and Los Ange­les Uni­fied school dis­tricts even had their own police departments.

What’s more, with­out a cen­tral def­i­n­i­tion or over­sight struc­ture, attempts at youth diver­sion were pro­duc­ing uneven results. Young peo­ple either were leav­ing the sys­tem with­out con­nec­tion to sup­port­ive pro­grams or being fun­neled into boot-camp style pro­grams that have been proven to lead to even deep­er involve­ment in the jus­tice system.

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