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Editorial

Want a better juvenile justice system? Keep kids out of it in the first place

Sending a young person to a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp to be supervised and rehabilitated costs about $247,000 a year.

Providing programs in the community to keep that same person out of trouble costs a fraction of that — several thousand dollars a year or even less.

And the results? Many kids, even those who committed serious crimes, are less likely to fall back into the juvenile justice system if they are kept out of a camp than if they are sent to one. They do even better if they never enter the justice system in the first place. If they break the law and are met with a cop who instead of arresting them directs them to a vetted and validated community-based program, and they successfully complete it, they walk away with a clean record, a fresh start and solid guidance toward a successful future — which is the entire point of juvenile justice laws.

Smarter thinking (and spending) in juvenile justice in this state began in earnest 10 years ago with a piece of legislation designed to decrease the bloated population of California Youth Authority prisons, the cruel and abusive state institutions where counties were sending their supposedly toughest youth offenders. Juvenile justice realignment, as it was known, reversed the financial incentives, making it more costly for counties to off-load youth onto the state while giving locals the money and the freedom to experiment with programs to reduce recidivism.

The results are astonishing. Juvenile crime has plummeted. Probation camps are closing.

For those who still must be removed from society for a time, L.A. County used much of its new funding to tear down an aging and jail-like probation camp and build in its place Campus Kilpatrick, geared less toward punishment and more toward recovery from traumas induced by neighborhood gang violence or family abuse. For those who can be diverted from the system, the county’s programs are small and somewhat scattered.

Earlier this year, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn called for a program to scale up juvenile diversion and to get police and community organizations on board. County staff responded late last week with a set of recommendations and a report that noted the availability of $26 million, a gap of another $14 million, and the need to shore up community service providers by getting them ready to serve many more juveniles who can be diverted not just from camps but from courts and even arrests, and with better results not just for them but for public safety.

So what are we waiting for? The investment on the front end means cost savings overall, and that doesn’t even include the savings from reduced crime and the incalculable benefit of young people becoming successful adults rather than prison inmates. Here’s one place where the county is on the right track. The board should move forward as soon as possible.

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