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Let’s invest in the care of our young people instead of putting them in cages

Sen. Holly Mitchell talks about the ‘cradle to prison pipeline’

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, speaks at a press conference on March 20, 2017, to introduce a package of juvenile justice reform bills in the California Legislature. Video courtesy of California Senate
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Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, speaks at a press conference on March 20, 2017, to introduce a package of juvenile justice reform bills in the California Legislature. Video courtesy of California Senate

California’s young people need care, not cages.

That call to action has become the drumbeat of a powerful movement of advocates working across California to push us to think bigger – and act boldly – to improve the health and wellbeing of our state’s biggest assets: our young people.

A central theme and focus of this movement has been to encourage California to shift its orientation from punishment to prevention in terms of how we treat young people who have been impacted by the justice system.

Last year, California passed the Youth Reinvestment Fund, the first-ever state fund specifically dedicated to keeping young people out of the justice system and in the care of community-based organizations that are best able to provide guidance and support.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed moving the Division of Juvenile Justice from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to Health and Human Services, signaling the need to address trauma and encourage rehabilitation.

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Advocates and organizers are also fighting for, and winning, changes at the local level. San Francisco is poised to shut down its juvenile hall by 2021. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors recently voted to allocate tens of millions in additional dollars to fund community-based youth development services in Los Angeles.

We applaud this progress. We can advance this long overdue policy shift by ensuring that our state’s budget, now and in the long term, reflects our values and invests in the services youth need to thrive.

The California justice system should keep all communities safe, prevent harm and uphold the values of fairness and accountability. However, today, the state spends nearly $1 billion per year to keep young people behind bars. The math itself indicates that prison should be the last resort. It costs nearly $300,000 to incarcerate a young person in Los Angeles for one year, versus $5,000 for a community rehabilitation program.

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Our current approach to youth justice is not only expensive, but

research shows

it is also harmful to our young people, particularly young people of color. More than

77 percent of youth detained

in California’s youth prisons are black or “Latinx.” Of the

approximately 62,000 annual juvenile arrests

in California, two-thirds of the arrests are for status offenses or misdemeanors like truancy and petty theft – the majority involves young people of color.

There is a better way. Instead of funding youth prisons, let’s make deep investments in proven strategies that help heal trauma, prevent violence and inspire healthy youth development for young people, their families and communities.

Let’s also choose to invest in diversion before any other option. Research has shown that non-detention alternatives, particularly for low-level offenses, are critical to keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system. Young people who go through these programs are 2.5 times less likely to reoffend than youth who are not diverted. In L.A. County, for example, only 11 percent of youth who participate in diversion programs return to the system, compared to 33 percent of those who were incarcerated, a pattern that is reflected in youth justice programs throughout the state.

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Lisa Whiteman

Finally, we join with other advocates and organizers in supporting the governor’s call to move the DJJ to an agency dedicated to the health and welfare of Californians, with the expectation that this leads to an end to California’s over-reliance on incarceration.

For both of us, this issue goes beyond our roles as philanthropic leaders. One of us has experienced firsthand the juvenile justice system’s traumatic and inhumane approach, and its detrimental impact on the long-term development of the youth it touches. For the other, the experience of having a younger brother in and out of jail starting when he was a teenager provided an insider’s lens into the ways that systems fail our most vulnerable.

As this years budget is finalized and as we begin to think about future efforts to shape the state’s budget, we ask that our policymakers prioritize investments into healthy youth development. Deepening our commitment for all our state’s youth is beyond smart taxpayer stewardship – it’s the right thing to do. Communities are safer and healthier when young people are thriving. An investment in youth wellbeing, with a focus on the most vulnerable, is an investment in our state’s future.

Chet P. Hewitt is president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation. Shane Murphy Goldsmith is president and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation. Both are members of the California Funders for Boys and Men of Color.

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