Legislation and resources, though inadequate, tend to focus on the barriers confronting adults returning to society after being incarcerated. Although just as serious, problems facing juveniles returning to the community receive far less attention. Too little focus has been given to the complex challenges and barriers confronting these youth.
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.
Los Angeles Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas commissioned a report (2008) that analyzes juveniles' re-entry in Los Angeles County. (Re-entry is the process by which incarcerated youth leave custody and attempt to re-establish themselves into society.) The report examines the failures and assets of the present system and recommends steps for improvement.
Two years ago, Ridley-Thomas and Children's Defense Fund's Marion Edelman announced the proposal to divert probation youths from gangs and crime. At that time, 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 abusive youth. It is far cheaper to educate than incarcerate our children."
Ridley-Thomas, who commissioned the report, added, "We must move beyond the fatally flawed view that the futures of our youth in custody are beyond repair. It is critical that 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 that these young men-and, increasingly young women-will form a permanent inmate class."
The 65-page report entitled "Juvenile Re-Entry in Los Angeles County: An Exploration of Strengths, Barriers and Public Options" was authored by the Children's Defense Fund. Unfortunately, cultural differences of Black and Latino juvenile probationers were not addressed in the report but the authors indicated these critically important differences would be taken into full account in subsequent reports. (Excerpts from the 2008 follow.)
Spikes in crime in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s were met with public fervor as the 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 Los Angeles County. Eventually, all incarcerated youth are 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 after their release from incarceration; even if they have undergone internal changes and are willing and able to modify their behavior, conditions in most neighborhoods where they committed their offenses will not have changed.
Despite changes resulting from the investigations of the County Probation Department, major challenges remain, particularly in relation to probation camps and the re-entry process for the approximately 4,000 juveniles released from camp each year. The report examined the re-entry process for male juvenile offenders who represent over three-quarters of all juvenile arrests and an even greater percentage of those incarcerated in probation camps.
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said he 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 to effectively employ human and economic resources to ensure successful juvenile re-entry, thereby improving public safety throughout Los Angeles County.
The average youth offender sent to camp is African American or Latino between the ages of 15 and 17 and incarcerated for offenses against persons (43%) or property (33%). Most are held in camp for relatively short periods of time-usually between 3 and 9 months, though occasionally longer. Most will leave camp as a legal minor, i.e., 17-years old or younger.
The report made ten recommendations to better coordinate pre-release planning among various county departments. Ridley-Thomas identified the study's top conclusions as: minimizing education and health disparities during transition; closely examining "best practices"; and radically improving data collection. He said, "There is a need to be able to discern what works and what does not."
Whatever the status of implementing the report's recommendations, concerned community groups should demand that the Board of Supervisors reaffirm its commitment that the County would implement and adequately fund programs that eliminate the barriers to juveniles' successful re-entry into society.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail