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Does L.A. County's innovative youth probation camp work? It's time to find out

Does L.A. County's innovative youth probation camp work? It's time to find out
L.A. County officials lead an official groundbreaking to make room for new state-of-the-art residential cottages and small-group living quarters at Campus Kilpatrick in Malibu on Sept. 12, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

Monday brings a graduation of sorts to 12 boys who were found to have committed crimes yet had the good fortune to be sent to Campus Kilpatrick, Los Angeles County's innovative probation camp in the Malibu hills.

The young offenders and the county now face a test. For the juveniles who have completed more than five months of therapeutic and correctional programs , the task is to return to their families and neighborhoods, ready to use what they have learned to steer clear of the kind of trouble that landed them at Kilpatrick in the first place. Much rides on their success.

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For the county, the question is how much it will learn from those youths as they transition back to freedom. Independent researchers will track the youths over the coming months and years to determine whether the new "L.A. Model" of juvenile rehabilitation produces better results than the old-school, boot-camp approach to dealing with youthful offenders or, if you prefer, juvenile delinquents.

L.A. County doesn’t have a lot of experience keeping records of juveniles who’ve been released from custody.


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The county has invested many years and millions of dollars in the reinvented Kilpatrick in the belief that it could replicate the success of a decades-old and widely touted juvenile justice program in Missouri that uses small dorm-like facilities instead of dreary military-style barracks, expert staffs that treat youths with dignity, and tested rehabilitation programs that take into account any mental and emotional damage that may have contributed to past behavioral problems. It is not a "soft-on-crime" program, but rather one that aims to achieve better results for both the juveniles and society. In Missouri, the approach has led to steep declines in juvenile crime recidivism rates.

L.A. County doesn't have a lot of experience keeping track of juveniles who've been released from custody. It finally obtained philanthropic funding and commissioned a study of juvenile justice outcomes several years ago, and in 2015 a report by researchers from Cal State L.A., the Advancement Project and others provided some eye-opening data on what became of juveniles in the years after they left probation camps. It turned out that 1 in 3 were arrested again within a year after their release.

So was that good or bad? Did those results demonstrate that the county's juvenile justice system was an utter failure and that the money, time and resources put into it were wasted? Or did it show that, considering the troubled lives the boys led, things were going about as well as they could? Were things getting better or worse? A single study can't answer those questions. Perhaps the main takeaway ought to be that the county previously had been moving forward without data, and lacked the internal capacity to compile and analyze it, or even the basic understanding that such work is important.

In addition to outcomes, the study spotlighted information that was previously either unknown to or underplayed by the Probation Department. For example, a shocking 92% of the youths studied were diagnosed with some degree of mental illness. Rehabilitation required medical treatment. Without knowing that, how could probation officials produce anything that could in any way be considered success?

Meticulous data collection and analysis is crucial not just in juvenile justice, but in all criminal justice programs. A major slice of taxpayer money is spent on incarceration and programs that are meant to reshape behavior in order to keep the same youth and adults from committing new crimes and returning, again and again, to probation camps or jail. Without studying what happens to people after their sentences are completed, corrections and rehabilitation are operating in the dark, tailoring projects and programs according to political fashion.

But across the Probation Department, there can be no data analysis if deputy probation officers are not trained to record information about their charges in a useful and uniform fashion. The county has a long way to go before it gets to that point, and before it fully internalizes the importance of data and the ability to interpret it.

Data collection and analysis is one of the important innovations of the Kilpatrick program, which includes a study of outcomes performed by outside researchers with criminal justice expertise. Results will necessarily take time, but the fact that the county considers post-incarceration data important is a major step forward and, in the end, is something to applaud every bit as much as the boys who are returning home.

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