Los Angeles and New Jersey Steer Youth Away from Justice System

Posted December 13, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Juvenile diversion is gaining momentum in LA County and New Jersey

New poli­cies enact­ed in Los Ange­les Coun­ty and the state of New Jer­sey are the lat­est signs of grow­ing momen­tum for a dra­mat­ic shift in our nation’s juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. The goal is to allow schools and com­mu­ni­ties — not the courts — to address most instances of youth mis­con­duct, and to reimag­ine how to sup­port and super­vise the small­er num­ber of young peo­ple who do enter the court system.

On Nov. 24, 2020, the L.A. Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors unan­i­mous­ly approved a ground­break­ing plan to phase out the coun­ty pro­ba­tion department’s juve­nile divi­sion, con­tin­u­ing a shift from a mod­el based on sur­veil­lance and com­pli­ance to an approach cen­tered on youth devel­op­ment. To facil­i­tate this, L.A. Coun­ty will cre­ate a youth devel­op­ment depart­ment with an ini­tial bud­get of $75 mil­lion per year.

In New Jer­sey, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Gur­bir Gre­w­al issued a 33-page pol­i­cy direc­tive on Dec. 3, 2020, requir­ing police depart­ments through­out the state to expand and track their use of warn­ings and oth­er alter­na­tives to arrest. The direc­tive also encour­ages pros­e­cu­tors to han­dle the cas­es of youth accused of all but the most seri­ous offens­es out­side of the for­mal court system.

The changes are being craft­ed in response to evi­dence that arrest­ing and pros­e­cut­ing youth hin­ders their long-term suc­cess and increas­es the like­li­hood of sub­se­quent arrests. The evi­dence also shows that expand­ing juve­nile diver­sion is a key strat­e­gy for reduc­ing racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties, because youth of col­or cur­rent­ly receive far few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for diver­sion than white youth.

We hope the changes in L.A. Coun­ty and New Jer­sey rep­re­sent the lead­ing edge of a wide­spread move­ment in youth jus­tice to pro­mote healthy ado­les­cent devel­op­ment,” says Jaqui­ta Mon­roe, a senior asso­ciate at the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. That means keep­ing young peo­ple out of the for­mal jus­tice sys­tem unless they pose a sig­nif­i­cant threat to pub­lic safe­ty, and it means realign­ing pro­ba­tion to focus on youth devel­op­ment rather than rule com­pli­ance, min­i­mize con­fine­ment and con­nect youth to pos­i­tive sup­port in their communities.”

The changes in Los Ange­les and New Jer­sey rep­re­sent the clear­est sign to date that expand­ing diver­sion and trans­form­ing pro­ba­tion are grow­ing priorities.

In Los Ange­les, the recent vote rat­i­fied a plan devel­oped by a coun­ty-spon­sored Youth Jus­tice Work Group, which was led by advo­cates and com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The step comes on top of the coun­ty board’s 2019 sup­port for a plan to have coun­ty law enforce­ment agen­cies refrain from mak­ing arrests in as many as 80% of cas­es in which youth are appre­hend­ed for delin­quent con­duct, instead steer­ing young peo­ple to coun­ty-fund­ed and com­mu­ni­ty-led diver­sion programs.

[L.A.] Coun­ty must resist a nar­ra­tive about these young peo­ple that does not leave space for hope and heal­ing and insist on a struc­ture that pro­motes pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment and reha­bil­i­ta­tion at all costs,” wrote coun­ty super­vi­sors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Rid­ley-Thomas in their motion to adopt the new plan.

In New Jer­sey, the new direc­tive ref­er­ences and builds upon the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive®. The first state in the nation to repli­cate the JDAI® mod­el statewide, New Jer­sey has reduced admis­sions to deten­tion by 80% since 2004.

This direc­tive helps us take anoth­er step towards reha­bil­i­tat­ing young peo­ple by divert­ing them away from for­mal court pro­ceed­ings to com­mu­ni­ty, fam­i­ly and school sup­port sys­tems,” Gre­w­al said in a state­ment announc­ing the direc­tive. If we can turn a youth away from the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, we know they stand a much bet­ter chance of turn­ing their life toward suc­cess in the long run.”

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