Preparing Los Angeles County for the Closure of the State’s Youth Prison System

Today, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-authored with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, asking the County to begin to immediately prepare for the transition of youth who would have been committed to the state youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), to instead be in Los Angeles County’s care. The motion requests that the County of Los Angeles (County) begin the planning process to transform its juvenile justice system, and determine if an entity other than its Probation Department can be responsible for the custody and rehabilitation of young people previously sent to DJJ.

“The closure of the Division of Juvenile Justice presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Los Angeles County, and we must begin planning immediately to ensure we are ready,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Connecting this planning effort with the work of restructuring and reimagining the County’s juvenile justice system, already underway, is an opportunity to ensure a rehabilitative model for youth who may otherwise be sentenced to adult prison.”

This motion follows Governor Gavin Newsom’s previous announcement as part of the State’s revised 2020-21 budget, that the long-troubled DJJ will be closing. Starting in January 2021, DJJ will no longer admit new youth; instead admitted youth will be housed at the county level. This move by the Governor is intended to help close a historic budget deficit created by the COVID-19 crisis, as well as to keep youth closer to their communities and families in the name of rehabilitation.  Counties have a short timeline – just over six months – to prepare for this increased responsibility.

“Long before the COVID-19 crisis, the County was moving toward a more rehabilitative, treatment-focused approach for the whole area of juvenile justice,” said Supervisor Kuehl. “Research demonstrates that such an approach is more effective, and our goal for all our young people is to set them on a path toward a healthy and productive life. The decision by the state to close their Division of Juvenile Justice means that LA County must prepare to serve additional young people in our system. This motion leverages the expertise and commitment of the existing Youth Justice Work Group to ensure the County’s rehabilitative, treatment-focused approach is extended to this group of young people.  My hope is that, by keeping young people in LA County, we can more easily keep them connected to family and community support.”

Last summer, the Board approved a Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl motion which created a Youth Justice Work Group to make recommendations on moving youth out of the Probation Department. The closure of the DJJ presents a unique opportunity to include the youth who would have been served by DJJ into this new model. The County will need to be prepared for this shift. Adequate funding will be necessary to support new programs and services to ensure rehabilitative goals that are health-focused and care-first are met. Efforts will be made to guard against unintended consequences, such as increasing the number of young people tried as adults.

“DJJ closure has been a long time coming and serving youth close to their communities is a more effective and humane practice. But planning for it will be a complex endeavor, especially with the troubled history of LA County’s camps and halls,” said Patricia Soung, a consultant for the Youth Justice Workgroup and Director of Youth Justice Policy at the Children’s Defense Fund – California. “I’m grateful the Board recognizes with this motion that diverse stakeholders should design how this county inherits responsibility over more youth, and do so in a way that is consistent with and does not derail ongoing efforts to transform the youth probation system in Los Angeles.”