In the past, youth justice in California has tried a tough and heavy-handed approach, particularly on youth of color. We now know from solid research of youth development and juvenile justice that punishment should be our last approach, a recourse only taken when more effective options such as mental health services and community-based programs don’t work. Incarceration can have lifelong consequences on a young person. A prison stint means a youth is more likely to become a high school dropout and more likely to be chronically unemployed.
Almost 10 years ago, California decided to focus instead on rehabilitation, which resulted in the reduction of kids in state facilities from 10,000 to approximately 680. County facilities across the state have had similar reductions. It is now time for us to go a step further and reduce youth incarceration and reimagine how we prepare all of our youth for second chances and successful futures.
There is public support for an evolved approach. A recent poll by The California Endowment, showed that an overwhelming number of Californians supported closing youth prisons. The state’s voters, who in the 1990s led the national push for what we now know to be failed tough-on-crime policies, have been convinced by data showing it’s cheaper and more effective to give youth a chance at redemption rather than a prison cell.
A focus on rehabilitation is smart policy and it saves taxpayer dollars. It also addresses grave racial injustices that exist in the criminal justice system. Nationwide, a Black youth is five times more likely to be arrested than a White youth; for Latinos, it’s almost twice as likely. These stark racial inequities were the impetus behind a challenge undertaken by the select committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, to further reduce youth incarceration. Simply put, imprisoning a child should never be an option.
Reducing the state’s youth prison is ambitious, but achievable. Through a focus on restorative services such as community service, mental health treatment and educational support, programs across the state have successfully helped youth in trouble recover from their mistakes and get their lives back on the right track. Diversion programs, as they are known, work by helping youth avoid arrest and imprisonment, and instead make positive choices for their futures. In L.A. County, only 11 percent of youth who participate in diversion programs return to the system, compared to 33 percent of those who were incarcerated, a pattern that is reflected in youth justice programs throughout the state.
The rate of return on the two tactics requires that state legislators take a hard look at how the state is spending its money. In Los Angeles County, it costs nearly $300,000 to incarcerate a kid for one year, versus $5,000 to put him or her through a community rehabilitation program. The math itself indicates that prison should be the last resort.
California can rise to the challenge by making a commitment to invest in diversion before any other option. The legislature’s Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color has held hearings during this session to hear from the experts, who were instrumental in reducing the youth prison population dramatically over last 10 years. The resounding consensus is that the budget should reflect our values, and our values have to reflect that belief in our youth.
We know that rehabilitation programs work. We see a future where youth prisons are not needed, offering an opportunity to rethink how we use those spaces and financial resources. We know that youth who need a second chance often fall into trouble because they never had a first chance – a first chance to succeed in their schools and their communities. Resources should be redirected toward prevention programs that provide the educational, employment and social support that all children need to thrive.
For both of us, this issue goes beyond our roles as a legislator and philanthropic leader. For one of us, my uncle was one of the original Little Rock Nine who helped to desegregate education; As Chair of the Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color it is my intent to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. For the other, the experience of having a younger brother in and out of prison as a teenager provided an insider’s lens to the ways that systems fail our most vulnerable. Investing in a real future for all our state’s youth is beyond smart taxpayer stewardship – it’s the right thing to do.
Los Angeles County made a new commitment to transform its youth justice system, investing more than $26 million over four years in community rehabilitation programs. Los Angeles County has the largest number of youth who are incarcerated and detained in the nation, and the future of this program will surely inform the rest of the nation. It is time for the rest of California to catch up and definitively say that prisons are no place for our children.