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.”