Historic Juvenile Justice Reform

Advocates testify in support of Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl’s motion to reform the juvenile justice system. L-R: Kent Mendoza, Anti-Recidivism Coalition; Patricia Soung, Children’s Defense Fund – California; and Martha Matthews, Public Counsel

On a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board of Supervisors voted to reform the way Los Angeles County provides legal counsel to youth in the justice system, and to begin implementing those changes by November 1.

“Today is truly a historic moment,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Our youth have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel and we, as a County, have an obligation to ensure that this right is met. These reforms accomplish that, while also protecting our youth and promoting their rehabilitation.”


Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas makes his case for reforming the juvenile justice system at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 11, 2016

“Juvenile defense attorneys play a critically important role,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “They determine whether juveniles will be prosecuted as adults, and they not only defend their young clients, they advocate for mental health, substance abuse and other services that may benefit these young people.”

Under the status quo, when children and teenagers cannot afford an attorney, the County provides a public defender. If there is a conflict – such as when the public defender or alternate public defender is already representing another party in the case – the County instead hires a private “panel attorney,” who gets paid a flat fee of $340-$360 regardless of the complexity and severity of the case, and who must use their own resources to hire investigators.

The result, according to separate studies by Loyola Law School and the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law, was that youth represented by panel attorneys were more likely to end up in juvenile halls and camps, or to be tried as adults.

Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro said failing to implement reforms “has moral and human costs.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion called for implementing reforms recommended by expert consultants Rebecca Silbert and Sue Burrell. Under the plan, the Alternate Public Defender’s Office would be given the role of taking on more cases arising from conflict.

The reforms also include having the Los Angeles County Bar Association oversee panel attorneys, who would be paid hourly, given equal access to resources, and undergo regular evaluations. Finally, a new, uniform case management system would be implemented to assist with data tracking and accountability.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said problems in the juvenile justice system have persisted for decades, and this year were highlighted in a documentary, They Call Us Monsters.

The historic action by the Board followed a groundbreaking report by Cyn Yamashiro, a professor and probation commissioner, who authored the Loyola Law School study. Yamashiro said that failing to implement reforms “has moral and human costs.”

Martha Matthews, director of the Children’s Rights Project at Public Counsel, said, “(Youth) cannot have a system of unequal justice, based simply on whether they happened to be assigned to someone who may be an incredibly diligent attorney — but is being paid (only) $300 per case.”

Kent Mendoza, a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, held himself up as an example of what could happen when a young person has quality legal representation. He said his public defender connected him to resources that helped him turn his life around, and remains his mentor to this day.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas Remarks On the Death of Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen

“I offer my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen, who bravely served and protected the people of Los Angeles County for almost 30 years, receiving a Medal of Valor in 2014.”

“His tragic death in the line of duty underscores the dangers that our law enforcement officers face every day. My thoughts and prayers are with the men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during this difficult time.”


Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen. Photo Credit: LASD


Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen. Photo Credit: LASD


Improving Police-Community Relations through Training

In wake of several high profile officer involved shootings alleging police misconduct locally and nationwide, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to take a look at whether Los Angeles County’s law enforcement agencies can do more to mitigate implicit racial bias. The motion, authored by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, was passed just a week after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department admitted that an innocent black man was killed by a deputy in Compton following a pursuit and search for suspects. The motion aims to identify training that will successfully boost cultural competency and grow a cadet’s awareness of implicit bias.

“We are facing a crisis of confidence with our law enforcement agencies, particularly in communities of color,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “This is an unprecedented moment in the history of our nation,” the Supervisor said.

Over a dozen individuals testified in support of the motion at the board meeting and called for improved officer training. Among those in attendance was Gilbert Johnson, an organizer with Community Coalition and a life-long resident of South Los Angeles.

“The culture of the Sheriff’s Department must dramatically change to repair the damage to the Sheriff’s reputation in the community,” said Johnson.

The motion indicates that implicit racial bias can cause institutions or individuals to act on racial prejudices unknowingly, even in spite of good intentions and nondiscriminatory policies or standards.

“Bias in policing whether implicit or explicit is tremendously damaging to our society,” said Catherine Wagner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California during her testimony before the board.

“We must challenge the insidious perception that criminal and dangerous are synonymous with black people and people of color,” said advocate Alex Johnson, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of California.

The motion passed by the board recommends mandated law enforcement protocols and training to examine an individual’s limitations with cultural competency. For years, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has been providing forums to foster interaction between law enforcement officers and community members, such as a series of locally organized “National Night Out” events in early August 2016. Improved training has the potential to further support these interactions.

“Any training that gives law enforcement the ability to connect with the community is very worthwhile,” said Don Pedersen, Assistant Inspector General for Los Angeles County.

The motion seeks to look more broadly at public safety and seeks to identify any gaps that may exist in officer training that can serve as a model to improve public safety and minimize tragic encounters. The supervisors directed the Sheriff’s Department, representatives with the offices of Probation, Public Defender, District Attorney, Fire Department, Superior Court and the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and all public safety departments to report back in 45 days on training related to implicit bias. A second report on national best practices is expected within three months.

“Together, we will work to build a transparent system of law enforcement and become a national model for constitutional policing in the 21st century,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Protecting Youth in the Juvenile Justice System


The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to clarify existing policies and protocols for dealing with critical incidents such as abuse at juvenile halls. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion, said further reforms are needed to protect youth in the care of Los Angeles County.

“It is a priority of the Board of Supervisors that we do all that we can to make sure those who are in our custody and care are treated as they should be, consistent with the law, and with the basic principles and practices of decency,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “The record is clear in terms of how much has been done to date, over the past decade, and yet we find ourselves confronted with recent allegations that we cannot and will not ignore.”

His motion, which also called for identifying long-term trends in the number of critical incidents, comes in the wake of news reports raised questions about the actions of some Probation Department staff at certain juvenile halls.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas expressed frustration over those developments, saying it “underscores that more reforms are needed to protect young people and promote institutional accountability.” He added the thrust of his motion is “to cause us to drill down, yet again, and establish a protocol that deals with critical incidents in a way that everyone understands, and that we all are committed to.”

“Reforming our juvenile justice system remains a big, big challenge for the County of Los Angeles,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added, noting the result of stronger policies and protocols should be fewer critical incidents. It would also ensure that when such an incident does happen to a youth under the County’s care, the response would be timely, thoughtful and trauma-informed.

Los Angeles County operates the nation’s largest juvenile justice system, with three juvenile halls and 13 probation camps. Recent reforms have included a ban on solitary confinement, and the adoption of the “Los Angeles Model” at Camp Kilpatrick, which focuses on giving youth positive reinforcement, healing and rehabilitation. Earlier this year, Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl filed motions that could lead to additional comprehensive reforms, including looking into restructuring the Probation Department, providing more effective oversight, and exploring long-term options for youth facilities, including closure.

Children Rescued from Abuse

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 2.39.27 PMMore than 100 sexually trafficked youth – including an 11-year-old – have been rescued since Los Angeles County adopted the First Responder Protocol that directs law enforcement officers to treat them as victims of abuse instead of criminalizing them as delinquents.

“Our children are not for sale and there is no such thing as a child prostitute,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who with Supervisor Don Knabe coauthored the September 24, 2013 motion to create the Protocol.


Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the July 26, 2016 Board of Supervisors meeting

The Protocol reflects an understanding that sexually trafficked youth have been exposed to severe violence, threats, and trauma. It requires law enforcement officers who encounter sexually trafficked youth to summon representatives of the Departments of Children and Family Services, Probation, Mental Health, and Health Services and survivor advocacy groups to arrive on-scene within 90 minutes, and to provide specialized services within 72 hours.

Michelle Guymon, director of the Child Sex Trafficking Unit in the Probation Department, said this kind of intervention is crucial to putting these youth on the path to recovery.

“Young people we recovered from sex trafficking four to five years ago, who have been receiving services from the County, have gone on to become advocates at the state level, influencing legislation and even advising organizations at the national level,” she said. “They tell us repeatedly that what was instrumental in their success was having someone there along the way to provide them with consistent support and access to services.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 4.41.19 PMGuymon and her fellow members of the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Integrated Leadership Team told the Board of Supervisors that 112 youth have been rescued since the Protocol’s inception. Their average age is 15, though the group included one 11-year-old and three 13-year-olds.

The team added that the multi-disciplinary collaboration among law enforcement and social services providers led to an 89 percent decline in arrests in the areas where the Protocol is observed.

Currently, the Protocol is being implemented at the Sheriff’s Compton, Century, Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita Stations and LA Basin Transit Bureau. It has also been adopted by the Los Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th and Southeast Area Stations.

The Protocol will be expanded to all Sheriff’s stations starting in October. It will eventually be adopted by all remaining LAPD stations and independent police departments.