“There can be no keener reflection of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela
For decades, criminal justice experts have known that Los Angeles’ approach to prosecuting youth has been mired in a “punish first” mindset, anchored in the failed prosecution policies of the 1990s. This antiquated approach has only served to make our communities less safe while simultaneously increasing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.
Jackie Lacey’s approach relies on antiquated systems and prosecutorial tactics that have served to incarcerate Californians at a rate higher than other industrialized countries. Los Angeles lags far behind a national movement recognizing the import of linking criminal prosecutions to positive societal outcomes. Rather than lead a movement away from costly punitive, prison-based alternatives for youth, Jackie Lacey remains committed to a “lock ‘em-up” approach, squandering countless opportunities to cheaply and effectively redirect youth away from the criminal justice system.
Locking up children in juvenile halls, boot camps and prisons, has never been shown to increase public safety, but is correlated with higher rates of recidivism and trauma. My approach views incarceration as a last resort, not a first impulse, and it must always be for the shortest duration necessary.
Los Angeles County is in a unique position to transform the nation’s largest juvenile justice system and positively impact thousands of young lives. While the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors has consistently identified ways to enhance services and reduce recidivism, Jackie Lacey has abdicated her leadership role, leaving juvenile justice policy-making to a troubled probation department. I am mindful of the special power and role prosecutors have in our system and am committed to making and supporting changes to make our juvenile justice system more humane and effective. The following are principles that underlie the key initiatives I would implement:
- Our prosecutorial approach should be biased towards keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system and when they must become involved, our system must employ the “lightest touch” necessary in order to provide public safety.
- A juvenile justice system must be family and child centered, holistic and collaborative with other systems and communities in order to heal trauma, foster positive youth development, and promote true public safety;
- A juvenile justice system must incorporate research and data in order to create effective responses to crime and youth need;
- We must invest in community-based services, schools, health and mental health programs and other resources that allow all children to thrive, no matter their zip code, race or gender;
- Any court involvement in a young person’s life should be proportionate, for the shortest duration possible and result in a pathway towards a better future for youth; and
- Youth justice approaches should reflect what science and data clearly demonstrate-that youth are malleable and continue to mature until their early-to mid-20s affording the juvenile justice system a unique opportunity to redirect youth permanently away from criminal behavior.
KEY INITIATIVES – OVERVIEW
- Adopt common sense, age appropriate strategies.
- Establish charging practices that reflect an emphasis on measurable positive societal outcomes.
- Establish a prosecutorial culture that promotes transparency, fairness and justice.
- Divert as a default
- Leverage the rich and expansive network of community organizations in Los Angeles to assist in promoting therapeutic, child centered and evidence-based responses.
- Promote community engagement through restorative justice and community courts.
- Reduce the collateral consequences of juvenile interactions with law enforcement and the justice system
1. Adopt Common Sense, Age Appropriate Strategies.
On Day 1, I will institute a range of policies that are consistent with the commonsense wisdom and scientific research that youth are developmentally different than adults and thus highly capable of growth, maturation and responsive to appropriate treatment and rehabilitation. Such policies are constitutionally compelled under Supreme Court jurisprudence that establishes youth as categorically less culpable and deserving of less punishment relative to adults.
- I will end prosecution of youth for typical adolescent behavior such as school fights, smoking marijuana, disorderly conduct, or other infractions at school that do not result in serious physical harm.
- I will end the ineffective practice of sending youth to the adult court system to be sentenced to prison. Adult prisons are no place for youth as they are bereft of age appropriate treatment, education, or any other rehabilitative services.
- Research has shown that children sentenced as adults are more likely to commit new crimes than those kept in the juvenile system. They are also 36 times more likely to attempt suicide. Young people incarcerated in adult prisons and jails are at the highest risk of rape and assaults. I will work with other system and community stakeholders to ensure young people access programs and services that promote accountability and safety through more meaningful and healing-focused approaches.
- I will explore establishing a dedicated unit of youth prosecutors who will receive specialized training on adolescent development, alternatives to detention, and community-based services, and who will be able to remain in juvenile court as a chosen and promotable specialization. One of the crucial problems with the current prosecutor’s practices is the revolving rotation of new prosecutors in and out of the juvenile courts after serving a year or two. This results in a lack of any training or engagement in the critical differences between youth and adults, and effective responses to delinquent behavior.
- Our policies as prosecutors in Los Angeles will be driven by the most current understanding of trauma-informed care and practices. Recognizing and responding appropriately to trauma during charging, plea negotiations and sentencing reduces recidivism by avoiding unnecessary re-traumatization of youth. Trauma-informed policies do not avoid penal consequences, rather they focus on maximizing outcomes where possible by minimizing further trauma at early stages in a youth’s interface with the juvenile justice system. A trauma-informed prosecutorial approach reduces the rate of re-offending, arrests, incarcerations and judicial costs associated with prosecutions.
- Lastly, I would replicate Young Adult Court, a model I pioneered in San Francisco and replicated in jurisdictions across the country. The highest rate of arrests is for young people ages 18-24 and currently 84% of them are rearrested within 5 years. Young Adult Court offers individuals between the ages of 18-25 years the opportunity to participate in a “collaborative” court system that is tailored to the emotional development and circumstances of each person. This court works with justice system partners and community organizations to ensure that young people on the cusp of adulthood develop the skills and relationships they need to make our communities strong and safe.
2. Establish charging practices that reflect an emphasis on measurable positive societal outcomes.
- Rather than focus on maximizing leverage to achieve maximum sentences, our office will focus on charging decisions that reflect our values: maximizing positive societal outcomes such as reducing crime, reducing rates of incarceration and reducing youth detention.
- I will institute fair and transparent charging policies that seek to minimize harsh and devastating collateral consequences. Our charging decisions will be mindful of the profound impact juvenile convictions have on youth and adults and will seek to avoid disrupting a youth’s employment, housing, entitlements, education, child custody, and immigration status. Avoiding the disruption of services has the net effect of reducing the community’s reliance on public funds, reducing homelessness and breaking the cycle of poverty and crime.
- I will adopt charging policies that eliminate the use of juvenile conduct to enhance sentences in the adult criminal court. This recognizes our common understanding of adolescent brain development and brings Los Angeles County in-line with Federal as law applied to the use of juvenile prior convictions.
3. Establish a prosecutorial culture that promotes transparency, fairness and justice.
- Our office will be committed to providing timely and complete information disclosures in all criminal cases. Consistent with the ABA rules and best prosecutorial practices, our office will approach discovery in a manner that maximizes transparency and accountability. This broad approach to discovery serves to promote justice while at the same time facilitating early and fair resolutions to cases. This facilitates prompt and just resolutions and ensures the reliability of convictions. Early and reliable case resolution saves scarce resources that might otherwise be spent on trials and wrongful conviction litigation.
- Our office will employ forensic evidence in a manner consistent with the most up-to-date scientific consensus. We are mindful of the potency of “scientific evidence” before lay jurors and the extent to which it has contributed to wrongful convictions. Our commitment to reject un-validated methods of proof promotes fairness and the credibility of our deputies, office and convictions.
- Establish an approach that diverts all first-time misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
- Research shows that diverting youth from justice systems as early as possible reduces recidivism. The more frequent and deeper youth penetrate the justice system, the more difficult it is to remove them. Diversion programs keep youth out of the juvenile justice system while establishing important connections necessary to improve their wellbeing. This avoids the harms associated with justice system involvement, reduces system costs, and improves public safety
4. Leverage the rich and expansive network of community organizations in Los Angeles to assist in promoting therapeutic, child-centered and evidence-based responses.
- As Los Angeles invests in a growing infrastructure of organizations to provide programs and supports like peer support, mentoring, arts training, education, vocational training, and leadership development, I will seek to develop stronger relationships with and funding for community-based diversion providers, Los Angeles County’s Youth Diversion and Development (YDD) and any other effective diversion initiatives.
- I would support targeting foster youth for special treatment to ensure they do not enter the juvenile justice system, especially for incidents resulting from AWOLs, group home placements, changes in school settings, or conflicts with caregivers. I will work with the LA Superior Court to seek feedback and direction from relevant stakeholders on a specialized and collaborative 241.1 pilot court for post-disposition dual-status youth, which was abruptly cancelled at the start of the COVID 19 pandemic.
5. Promote community engagement through restorative justice and community courts.
- Too often, young people are still shuttled through the juvenile justice system with insufficient consideration for the circumstances that brought them there or how harms inflicted can best be repaired. Restorative justice approaches strive for healing and accountability through engaging parties in a process to determine the appropriate response and facilitate acceptance of responsibility and action to repair the harm.
- In San Francisco, I pioneered the Make It Right program as a restorative justice alternative to incarceration for young people. Participants develop understandings and agreements to hold youth accountable to repair the harm they caused to the victim, the community, the family and themselves. With support from a community-based case manager, the young person has a six-month period to complete his or her agreement, and if successful, the case is not prosecuted. Young people who completed the program were 40% less likely to be prosecuted for a new crime, and had a recidivism rate of just 13%, compared to 53% for youth in the traditional system. In Los Angeles, I would collaborate with existing community providers, grounded in restorative justice principles and practices, to promote tested and proven restorative justice programs like Make It Right broadly across the County. Building on examples from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and many other major metropolitan cities, our office will explore working with community partners to establish a community court system in Los Angeles. Community Courts are committed to six basic principles: community engagement, better information leads to better outcomes, the necessity of collaborating with a diverse range of interests and resources, individualized sanctions and treatment, community-based accountability and improving outcomes.
6. Support the efforts to transform Probation to Align with Existing Best Practices
- Just as research and experience have demonstrated that incarceration is ineffective and actually harmful to both the aims of youth development and public safety, similar concerns exist about probation supervision. Some probation departments have adopted thoughtful reforms, shifting their practices away from a law enforcement orientation towards youth development. However, “[i]n most jurisdictions, probation is a punitive system that attempts to elicit compliance from individuals primarily through the imposition of conditions, fines, and fees that in many cases cannot be met.” To more effectively promote youth success, probation roles should be clearly circumscribed, and practices redesigned, including the length, type, and conditions of supervision.
- I would support shrinking probation’s footprint, especially through supporting the current efforts of the Youth Justice workgroup to further reduce the numbers of youth under court supervision and in secure custody and out-of-home placements, and to replace the current youth probation system with a system focused on youth development and well-being.
7. Reduce the collateral consequences of juvenile interactions with law enforcement and the justice system.
- The collateral consequences of juvenile court involvement creates barriers to education, employment, housing and other pathways to stability and success. I will support prosecutorial decisions that seek justice, while minimizing the long-term consequences of juvenile court involvement.
- I will promote the sealing of all possible records, including diversion records to ensure youth are not penalized for contacts with and involvement in the justice system into the future.
- As DA I would support broad application of the court’s ability to reduce the collateral consequences of juvenile convictions through dismissing cases prior to disposition, sealing records and where possible, charging youth in a manner that minimizes a permanent record.
 Michael P. Jacobson et al., “Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes,” Papers from the Executive Session on Community Corrections, Harvard Kennedy School, (2017), p. 1.