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Commentary: We should invest in kids and their support networks, not juvenile justice systems

D’Artagnan Scorza | October 31, 2018

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Los Angeles is currently home to the largest juvenile justice system in the nation. In my hometown of Inglewood, improving public safety is among our biggest priorities. We care about safety and care about the wellbeing of our communities. However, I firmly believe that losing faith in and ceasing to invest in our young people is one of the biggest threats to public safety. This is why we must move away from the current juvenile justice system and invest in youth development.

I believe that no one is hopeless, and I am particularly firm on this when it comes to youth. Even children born into disadvantaged circumstances and teens facing limited choices that threaten to continue negative cycles in their families and communities have the potential to succeed.

I can speak from experience, both personally and professionally. When we invest in youth and families in our community, we find that they have the ability to thrive. It’s why I do the work that I do, and why it’s so important that we rethink how we prescribe the future of youth involved in the justice system.

When it comes to thinking about a new path for juvenile justice, it is essential that we replace mandatory pathways to punishment with pathways of opportunity. Education and rehabilitation play a huge role in changing the lives of youth involved in the justice system. Research and experience tell us that young offenders’ brains are still developing and are malleable to change. We must allow them to reclaim their lives and affirm their value in our society and communities instead of locking them up, where they run out of opportunity for the rest of their lives.

Any contact with the juvenile justice system increases the odds for poor outcomes for youth, including their involvement in violence. Youth who are placed in pre-arrest diversion programs have been shown to be 2.5 times less likely to re-offend than youth not diverted.

California lawmakers are realizing that our policies and punitive systems aren’t working and that they’re costing our state an incredible amount of money. Investing in the future of our youth is a far greater investment than incarceration, and two bills recently signed by the governor reflect that. These new laws pay respect to the transformative power of investing in young people and could mark a stunning shift in culture for the juvenile justice system.

SB 1391 prevents kids under 16 from being tried as adults, and SB 439 protects children under 12 from being prosecuted. The logic behind these bills is backed by data demonstrating that laws like these improve public safety and allow our state to target appropriate solutions to solve the challenges we face.

Programmatic, community-based solutions also provide answers — without them, the only other solution is to incarcerate or penalize. For example, at my organization, the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI), we’re a partner in an initiative called BLOOM (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men) along with the California Community Foundation and Brotherhood Crusade. It’s a stellar example of why this logic is sound and proves just how possible it is to redirect the lives of young men who have already had contact with the juvenile justice system.

The program is having a significant impact on the school-to-prison pipeline in south Los Angeles County. We are disrupting cycles of juvenile recidivism with job training, personal coaching, mentoring and leadership training. Since we launched SJLI’s BLOOM program in 2012, an incredible 90 percent of enrolled participants did not reoffend, 87 percent went on to graduate from high school and many of our young folk pursued post-secondary education or career pathways. This initiative is strides ahead of the statewide recidivism rate. The last available data suggest that nearly 46 percent of inmates released from prison were convicted of crimes again within three years.

We’re not just doing this to keep kids from going to court or being locked up. We’re doing this to return them to our communities and help them become the stewards of change. We want their participation in helping to create better conditions and eliminate the need for programs like BLOOM in the first place.

With this comes a return on investment that one can’t fully measure — it’s priceless. Not only that, but we do save taxpayer dollars down the line. It costs an average of $233,600 per year to incarcerate a youth in Los Angeles County, a cost that is avoidable. The work we are doing doesn’t just transform lives and communities, it saves our society significant amounts of money. Investing in these programs is a far greater investment than incarcerating children into already-overflowing and expensive prison systems. It gives these kids, and our communities, renewed hope for a brighter future.

Mass incarceration doesn’t solve crime or problems in our communities — it contributes to them. It’s time we recognize that we’re all in this together, part of the same communities, the same humanity. We thank our legislators for these historic new laws. We believe that moving forward, we all have a responsibility to ensure our neighbors aren’t suffering, especially those with their whole lives ahead of them.

Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza is executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, which works to advance educational and health equity for youth and communities of color in Inglewood. He currently serves on the Inglewood Unified School District Board of Education, the UCLA Alumni Association Board and as a lecturer in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

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