Paradigm Shift for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Justice System

As part of a significant shift to a “care-first” approach to juvenile justice, and to reduce excessive force in Los Angeles County’s probation camps and juvenile halls, the Board of Supervisors called for a plan to divert youth with mental health needs away from locked facilities, and to increase mental health services for youth who remain incarcerated. The motion was in response to growing concerns about inadequate treatment, documented in reports by the County’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Department of Mental Health (DMH).

“Failure to provide mental health services to justice-involved youth in our care is not a new problem. The US Department of Justice documented these issues back in 2003 and yet, over 15 years later, the County continues to struggle. This is unacceptable,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion, said. “The current approach of juvenile incarceration is currently re-traumatizing youth and making the facilities less safe. These sobering findings lead to the unavoidable conclusion that a fundamental paradigm shift to a ‘care first’ model is required to achieve rehabilitation and public safety. We cannot allow the status quo to continue.”

“Our probation halls and camps are not meeting the mental health needs of our youth and we need a new approach,” added Supervisor Janice Hahn, co-author of the motion. “Whenever possible, we will divert kids with mental illness out of custody and into community-based treatment. At the same time, we will invest in dramatically improving the mental health services available for the youth who remain in our care.”

In its February 2019 report on safety concerns in juvenile justice facilities, the Inspector General found incidents of youth on psychotropic medication being pepper sprayed, as well as other alarming violations of protocol. In response, the Board asked DMH to assess the mental health needs of youth in County juvenile facilities.

Among the report’s most significant findings is that more than 90 percent of youth in the juvenile halls in 2018 had an open mental health case, representing a 38 percent increase since 2015. These youth are also more likely to have experienced homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation, which aggravate their underlying mental health issues. To address rather than exacerbate this trauma, DMH called for shifting to a “care first” model, including diversion, alternative placements, and increased mental health staff for those that remain in custody. Today’s motion by Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Hahn seeks to find ways to implement these and other DMH recommendations.

“We believe in care for kids whose lives have been turned upside down by trauma and are in need of treatment, not punishment. Unfortunately, our current systems are not only incompatible with care delivery but also reinforce unhealthy narratives,” DMH Director Jonathan Sherin said. “We need reform and are going for it ‘all in’ as a County with steadfast leadership from the Board of Supervisors and guidance from the community.”

Peter Espinoza, director of the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, said his office “understands the importance of providing community-based alternatives for young people who suffer from a mental disorder, and is poised to build on the County’s existing youth diversion model to do so. Diverting young people away from incarceration improves not only health and education outcomes but also decreases their likelihood of reoffending.”