Shutting Down the Pipeline from
Foster Care to Juvenile Justice

Amid sweeping changes in child welfare policy at the federal and state level, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas announced a motion aimed at slashing the number of foster youth who become entangled in the juvenile justice system, and ensuring supportive care for those who do touch both systems. The Board of Supervisors will hear the motion on March 20, 2018.

Such “dual status” or “crossover” youth, who fall under the jurisdiction of both the dependency and delinquency systems, are a particularly vulnerable population: a 2016 report by Cal State Los Angeles showed that three-quarters of dual status youth had a mental health diagnosis, and one-tenth had attempted suicide. Moreover, a 2011 study by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation found 4 in 5 such youth rely on public welfare benefits during early adulthood.

“Many of these youth have been victims of serious trauma, and getting caught up in the justice system only traumatizes them further,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Half of dual status youth in the County are struggling in school or not attending regularly. Too many may end up languishing in juvenile hall due to insufficient community-based placements. We can and must do better.”

Los Angeles County has a history of addressing the particular needs of dual status youth. It was one of the first counties in California to let youth remain in both the dependency and delinquency courts to improve service delivery. In 2012 and 2013, the Board approved Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ motions to improve prevention, intervention, funding for services, and data collection for this population.

The landscape has changed in the intervening years. Continuum of Care Reform in California is fundamentally altering the types of housing available for youth in the child welfare system, ending the concept of group homes as we know it. Meanwhile, the Families First Prevention Services Act will affect financing streams for federal child welfare. This is a critical time for Los Angeles County to lead on this issue and shut down the pipeline from the foster care system to the juvenile justice system.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas latest motion, coauthored by Supervisor Hilda Solis, charges the Office of Child Protection (OCP) with creating a countywide plan for dual status youth – and those at risk of becoming such youth – that is informed by an understanding of their particular needs and the policy changes underway.

The OCP is uniquely poised to lead this work. It will liaise with the Juvenile Court; convene affected youth and the County departments and community stakeholders serving them; identify funds to enhance services; and build on improvements already underway. OCP Executive Director Michael Nash, a retired presiding judge of the Juvenile Court and longtime advocate for dual status youth, said, “I view this motion as an excellent opportunity for the OCP to work with all the relevant stakeholders to move this effort forward.”

“There are few children more in need of our collective hard work and commitment than those who are been impacted by both the child welfare and criminal justice systems,” Probation Director Terry McDonald said. “We believe that by strengthening our partnership and resolve, we can improve the lives of young people who have experienced far too much trauma and often neglect.”

“Having worked in both Probation and child welfare, I can tell you from firsthand experience that these youth have experienced trauma and need all the support we can provide,” added Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobby Cagle. “I look forward to working with my colleagues across County departments to ensure these youth have caring adults in their lives to provide them with a safe and loving environment.”

Righting the Wrongs of the War on Drugs

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

Supervisor, Los Angeles County

I am, and will remain, concerned that legalizing the sale of marijuana could be detrimental to the health and safety of vulnerable neighborhoods, leading to unintended consequences that cannot be offset by overblown estimates of the profit that commercialization might bring. Still, I recognize that Prop. 64 offers an opportunity to address at least some of the profound injustices perpetrated by the War on Drugs, especially against people of color.

Even though marijuana use is fairly consistent across race, blacks have been four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. And their punishment persisted long past the time they spent behind bars, because having a conviction on one’s record made it difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, obtain housing, secure student loans, earn a professional license, etc.

All of those missed opportunities had lasting repercussions, sometimes felt across generations. It also further widened the racial divide, socially and economically.

Prop. 64 is not without flaws but nevertheless carries tremendous potential for righting the wrongs of the past, basically by giving people a chance to start over. It retroactively reduced certain convictions – felonies became misdemeanors, misdemeanors became infractions – and dismissed some convictions altogether. For youth, it also allowed court records to be destroyed, giving them a clean slate.

Many people, however, remain unaware that they are entitled to legal relief under Prop. 64. Others are deterred by the cumbersome process, which can include having to hire a lawyer to petition the court.

We have an obligation to help them.

Together with Supervisor Hilda Solis, I have authored a motion to create a plan for facilitating the resentencing of minor marijuana convictions in Los Angeles County. The Office of Cannabis Management would collaborate with various county departments and agencies, as well as the courts and community stakeholders, to develop strategies that are timely, accessible, and cost-effective.

The motion also seeks to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, particularly racial disparities in law enforcement. A disturbing pattern has emerged in jurisdictions that legalized marijuana. In Alaska, for example, overall marijuana-related arrests fell post-legalization but blacks were still arrested 10 times more often than whites. In Washington D.C. and Colorado, the ratio was closer to 4:1 and 3:1.

Throughout my career, I have made criminal justice reform a priority. I have worked to improve relations between law enforcement and the public they are sworn to protect and serve; to facilitate resentencing under Prop. 47; to create diversion programs for the mentally ill, who should not be in jail in the first place; and to support reentry programs aimed at helping ex-offenders become productive members of society after serving their time.

Too many lives have already been upended, and communities adversely affected, by actions that, as of New Year’s Day 2018, are no longer considered crimes in California. If we, as a society, value justice and improving lives, then we must make the most of correcting wrong-headed criminal justice practices of the past and promote a future that is defined by enlightened accountability.

A Roadmap for Probation Reform

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion to accept the final recommendations of a study that evaluated ways to reform Los Angeles County’s troubled Probation Department. It endorsed the findings of the LA County Probation Governance Study, which was the culmination of 18 months of work by Resource Development Associates (RDA), a consultant team that included local and national experts in justice reform.

The commissioned report made seven primary recommendations:

  • Develop a uniform mission statement, instituted to advance reform efforts;
  • Reorganize the Probation Department with youth and adult divisions to create needed specialization for each population;
  • Strengthen community partnerships and develop community-oriented offices;
  • Use structured decision making and validated risk/needs assessments to better place and track services;
  • Close and repurpose juvenile facilities, including one or two juvenile halls;
  • Address staffing, hiring and training issues; and
  • Invest in IT systems and use of data.

“There is consensus that these primary recommendations are essential to reforming Probation,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “The key now seems to be how to integrate, coordinate, and ensure that accountability systems are in place to advance this agenda to achieve stated benchmarks, with outcomes, to support clients and our communities.”

“Accepting RDA’s primary recommendations, and directly linking them to the efforts already underway on Probation reform, is the responsible thing to do,” he added. “The ultimate goal is a transformed department with clients’ well-being at its core.

Board Chair Sheila Kuehl said, “This report underscores the need to continue many of the positive actions that the County has been taking in recent years to strengthen and transform the nation’s largest probation department into a model for the rest of the country.”

“It also provides a practical framework for continued implementation of these important reforms,” she added. “I, and my fellow supervisors, are committed to seeing that this Probation Department provides not only oversight and supervision but also robust support systems for the adults and children in our care. Doing so better ensures the safety of all County residents.”

“RDA has done the crucial work of drawing on past reports, existing research, and input from the Probation Department and community stakeholders to craft an important and comprehensive set of recommendations,” said Josh Green, criminal justice program manager at the Urban Peace Institute, and an active community stakeholder working on juvenile justice reform. “The opportunity we have now is to imagine an implementation plan that recognizes the essential role of Board, the Department and community members, while also thinking about how we can all hold one another accountable.”

Expanding Voter and Civic Engagement

The Board of Supervisors called for expanding a Los Angeles County voter education and registration plan for eligible individuals involved with the criminal justice system.

Authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl, the motion directs the Office of Diversion and Reentry to collaborate with the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, as well as other County departments and community stakeholders, to develop a voter and civic engagement plan over the next three months.

“There are still rampant misconceptions about voter’s rights, accessibility, and the qualifications of individuals with current or previous involvement with the criminal justice system to participate in elections,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Voter ineligibility disproportionately affects people of color, especially African-Americans.”

“This motion intends to elevate and expand Los Angeles County’s current efforts to assist the disenfranchised to become more civically engaged,” he added. “Regardless of circumstance, every citizen is worthy of having their say, and active participation in the democratic process is still the loudest bullhorn.”

The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center based in Washington, D.C., estimates that nearly 6 million Americans are ineligible to vote because of laws targeting those with previous criminal convictions.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Kuehl’s motion centers on improving civic and electoral engagement by expanding on and enhancing the County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s current program, Voting While Incarcerated. The motion would also ensure that youth and adults involved with justice system have access to vital records, such as birth certificates and I.D.’s, to help them reintegrate back into their communities.

“With this motion, we are moving to lessen one of the daunting barriers faced by men and women being released from jail who are trying to get back on their feet and become successful members of society,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “Imagine trying to register for social security or rent an apartment without a personal identification card.”

“I am also very happy that this motion prioritizes the right to vote by those who are eligible but in jail, on probation, or on post-release community supervision,” she added. “This Board wants to strongly urge the participation of every person who is eligible to vote.”

Judge Peter Espinoza, director of the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR), the entity tasked with leading the effort, said work is already underway to provide vital records to the mentally ill population coming out of the jails. He added, “Expanding access to vital records and educating those eligible to vote is an essential element of the holistic reentry process that ODR provides.”

Susan Burton, founder of the nonprofit A New Way of Life, which has been working since 2008 to register incarcerated voters, said her organization is helping train 75 volunteers to register incarcerated individuals to vote in time for the primary elections. “People who are eligible to vote need information, but they also need meaningful access to the ballot,” she said.

Resentencing and the Decriminalization of Cannabis

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas calling on the Office of Cannabis Management, in collaboration with various Los Angeles County departments and community stakeholders, to develop a countywide plan to facilitate the resentencing of minor cannabis convictions.

Under Proposition 64, certain convictions qualify for reduction or dismissal. However, many people remain unaware that they may be eligible for legal relief, or are deterred by the cumbersome process.

“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth.”

“This would remove barriers to employment, housing, financial assistance, and deepening social and economic disparities,” he added. “For many, this is the second chance that was due to them, and has been a long time coming.”

The motion, coauthored by Supervisor Hilda Solis, also seeks to prevent the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis-related offenses seen in other jurisdictions post-legalization. In Alaska, for example, while overall cannabis-related arrests fell after legalization, African Americans were still arrested for these offenses approximately 10 times more often than Caucasians were. In Washington, D.C. this racial disparity was closer to 4:1, and in Colorado, 3:1.

Eunisses Hernandez, policy coordinator with the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, supported the motion. “The act of getting someone’s conviction reclassified or dismissed off their record removes at least 4,800 barriers that prevent them from obtaining housing, employment and supportive services,” she told the Board. “Providing post-conviction relief services opens the door for new opportunities that allow people to fully integrate back into their communities after being impacted by the criminal justice system.”

She added, “Everyone in our communities benefit from having more people eligible for employment and other resources that allows them to support themselves and their families.”