Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (Courtesy photo)

Thousands of California youth are incarcerated every year for low-level offenses. Our youth deserve a better approach, one that can have the added benefit of reducing the disproportionate impact the justice systems have on youth of color, children with disabilities, girls, LGBTQ youth, and foster children.

It is time we stop incarcerating our children and start investing in their future. I will be asking the state of California to establish The Youth Reinvestment Fund, which would add $100 million to the State’s budget to improve outcomes of vulnerable youth populations using trauma informed, community and health-based interventions in lieu of arrest, detention and incarceration.

The Youth Reinvestment Fund proposal will allocate $15 million to hire social workers to support cases involving minors in juvenile or criminal court, including youth re-entry and other critical youth-related needs within the public defender office. $10 million would fund Tribal Diversion Programs for Native American youth, and $75 million would fund local diversion programs and community-based services for at risk youth over a 3-year grant period.

Of the approximately 62,000 annual juvenile arrests in California, two-thirds of the arrests are for status offenses or misdemeanors; the majority involved youth of color. Approximately 8 out of 10 youth arrested are referred to probation, however, many are detained. Research has shown that non-detention alternatives, particularly for low-level offenses, are more appropriate responses to curb delinquent behavior, avoiding pushing youth deeper into the juvenile justice system. Most importantly, communities that have intentional diversion programs show improved outcomes for youth and public safety.

Effective diversion programs in the state already exist. Los Angeles’ Centinela Youth Services (CYS) is a pre-arrest juvenile diversion program that produces low recidivism rates of its graduates. By using principles of restorative justice and trauma-informed care, CYS empowers youth, families and crime victims to become accountable, to heal and realize their full potential. Also San Francisco’s Huckleberry Youth Program’s the Community Assessment and Resource Center (CARC) serves as a single point of entry for crisis intervention, assessment, service integration and referral of arrested youth. Researchers found diversion and mentoring programs produced $3.36 of benefits for every dollar spent in terms of reduced crime and associated costs to taxpayers.

The Youth Reinvestment Fund will support the creation and expansion of trauma-informed, developmentally-appropriate and culturally-relevant community diversion programs for youth as an alternative to system involvement for low-level offenses. Youth in conflict with the law who are met with responses that account for and address their immaturity and underlying trauma and mental health needs see far better health and educational outcomes than youth who are not. As healthy productive adults they earn more money and contribute to tax revenue and do not draw down on public support, such as housing assistance or food stamps. This more appropriate approach can have the added benefit of reducing the disproportionate impact the justice system has had on our most vulnerable youth.