LA County Leader on Diverting Thousands of Young People From Court

Posted February 12, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Mother and teenage son

Los Ange­les Coun­ty is steer­ing thou­sands of young peo­ple away from the juve­nile court sys­tem and into com­mu­ni­ty-led ser­vices. Help­ing lead this effort is Refu­gio Valle, the direc­tor of the County’s Youth Diver­sion and Devel­op­ment (YDD) division.

The county’s ambi­tions are based on evi­dence that diver­sion from for­mal court pro­cess­ing typ­i­cal­ly improves youth well-being. As the most pop­u­lous coun­ty in the nation, this plan is like­ly to influ­ence diver­sion deci­sions across the nation.

The com­mit­ment to sig­nif­i­cant­ly ramp up com­mu­ni­ty-led diver­sion began in late 2017 with the approval of the county’s board of super­vi­sors. When the ini­tia­tive is ful­ly imple­ment­ed in 2024, coun­ty lead­ers antic­i­pate up to 80% of youth inter­ac­tions with law enforce­ment will lead to diver­sion rather than juve­nile court. To set that goal in con­text, 43% of juve­nile refer­rals were han­dled out­side of courts and pro­ba­tion agen­cies nation­wide in 2018.

Valle works to increase law enforcement’s use of diver­sion. He also set the goal of build­ing the capac­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions to sup­port young peo­ple with get­ting back on track.

Valle recent­ly spoke about the scope of this effort with the Casey Foundation.

Q: What data sup­ports diversion?

Valle: Youth who par­tic­i­pate in pre­ar­rest diver­sion pro­grams are 2.5 times less like­ly to reof­fend than sim­i­lar youth who were not divert­ed, accord­ing to research. Youth who par­tic­i­pate in diver­sion pro­grams after arrest are 1.5 times less like­ly to reoffend.

Q: Why pur­sue com­mu­ni­ty-led diversion?

Valle: Com­mu­ni­ty-based diver­sion pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for young peo­ple to be enrolled in pro­gram­ming that’s cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant to their com­mu­ni­ty from orga­ni­za­tions that know their his­to­ry and are able to con­nect them to local resources. We want our com­mu­ni­ty providers to devel­op rela­tion­ships in which they can iden­ti­fy how to sup­port these young peo­ple’s devel­op­ment. These rela­tion­ships could turn into long-term pos­i­tive con­nec­tions, as opposed to the short-term nature of [court] sys­tem involve­ment. With that sup­port, young peo­ple can iden­ti­fy goals for them­selves and achieve things in their lives that maybe they did­n’t believe they’d be able to.

Q: Why divert young peo­ple instead of refer them to the for­mal legal system?

Valle: The vast major­i­ty of young peo­ple who are arrest­ed will grow out of what­ev­er behav­ior got them in trou­ble with­out any sort of puni­tive inter­ven­tion. The jus­tice sys­tem in Amer­i­ca pro­duces poor out­comes for young peo­ple and Black and Lati­no youth are much more like­ly than white youth to wind up in the sys­tem for sim­i­lar offens­es. It trau­ma­tizes youth and doesn’t pro­vide the type of sup­port that young peo­ple need as they mature.

On the flip side, our diver­sion mod­el is focused on youth devel­op­ment. We don’t come at this from a puni­tive lens. We built in restora­tive jus­tice prac­tices because we want there to be an oppor­tu­ni­ty for youth to address the harm they may have caused and for folks who were harmed to be able to come to a true res­o­lu­tion around what­ev­er hap­pened — at least in most cas­es. Less sys­tem involve­ment, more pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment and oppor­tu­ni­ties to restore harm using restora­tive prac­tices add up to a greater sense of pub­lic safety.

Q: When are youth divert­ed? By whom?

Valle: YDD’s pro­gram is pre­ar­rest and pre-book­ing. We encour­age law enforce­ment to make a deci­sion about diver­sion at the point of con­tact with the youth based on the alleged offense and the infor­ma­tion they have on hand, not whether the youth has a record or the sever­i­ty of pri­or offenses.

Q: What’s diver­sion programming?

Valle: Youth referred to diver­sion pro­gram­ming pre-book­ing are not detained. They are able to con­nect with a ser­vice provider in their com­mu­ni­ty. YDD ser­vice providers build pro­gram­ming that is cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant to the youth and have staff that are from sim­i­lar back­grounds who are skilled in build­ing trust­ful rela­tion­ships with young peo­ple. Length of ser­vice depends on a youth’s goals and can be any­where from three months to a year, with the aver­age length being about six months.

The most com­mon cat­e­gories of ser­vices and activ­i­ties that the youth have asked for so far are school-relat­ed sup­port, restora­tive jus­tice, recre­ation­al and arts activ­i­ties and work readi­ness and career devel­op­ment. Also, we want our ser­vice providers to address the harm or trau­ma that the youths may have expe­ri­enced in their lives.

Q: How could diver­sion increase equi­ty in juve­nile justice?

Valle: We hope to address the inequities that we see in terms of youth arrest, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Black and Lati­no youth. In the coun­ty, 62% of youth arrest­ed are Lat­inx and 24% are Black, while their per­cent­age in the pop­u­la­tion is only 47% and 8% respec­tive­ly. We’re hop­ing to build equi­ty in terms of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be divert­ed rather than fun­neled fur­ther into the jus­tice sys­tem. Our eli­gi­bil­i­ty cri­te­ria for diver­sion does­n’t involve any type of risk assess­ments in part to avoid the poten­tial bias of such tools.

Q: How are you mea­sur­ing success?

Valle: Los Ange­les Coun­ty plans to mea­sure the out­comes for youth of col­or at each of the fol­low­ing touch­points and com­pare them to the out­comes of white youth to make diver­sion more equitable:

  1. Get­ting stopped by a law enforce­ment officer.
  2. Get­ting referred by law enforce­ment to a diver­sion program.
  3. Get­ting enrolled in a diver­sion program.
  4. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in and com­plet­ing a diver­sion program.
  5. Thriv­ing after a diver­sion program.

Youth out­comes are at the heart of suc­cess. We’re in the process of iden­ti­fy­ing eval­u­a­tors who can come in and do some of the deep div­ing in look­ing at out­comes over time — met­rics like improve­ments in school engage­ment, social con­nec­tions, emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and hav­ing a source of sup­port in times of need and con­flict resolution.

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