LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Some 300 probation officers, law enforcement personnel, child welfare workers, and politicians gathered at The California Endowment March 17 to discuss building a network between the community and local government to help rebuild the lives of youth and adults on probation.
The “Rebuilding Lives” summit is part of an 18-month transformation planned for the Los Angeles County Probation Department and an offshoot of a community corrections conference held in 2006.
The department says a transformation is needed in culture, education and corrections to reduce recidivism and juvenile felony arrests, increase intervention and community prevention programs and move from custody and supervision to treatment and rehabilitation.
“This is a moment of honesty, of collaboration and direct talk and I hope that this conference will not simply be polite. We have to be candid, constructive, creative, imaginative, all in the context of trying to get to I hope a common goal,” said state Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas.
According to conference organizers, L.A. County has the largest system in the United States, serving more than 200,000 children and families through 61 courts annually. The Probation Dept. houses more children within its halls and camps than 48 of the 50 states, trailing Texas and Florida.
“We even house more kids in this county than the state of California houses … about one-third of these kids are African American, yet African Americans comprise only nine percent of the county population,” said Robert Taylor, who heads the Probation Dept. He hopes education reform will help reduce the numbers.
Though “Rebuilding Lives” focused on adult and youth probation issues, it primarily dealt with youth recidivism and education reform.
Adrianne Sears, who teaches social work at California State University Los Angeles, believes the over-representation of Black youth in the criminal justice system is rooted in racism, a lack of spiritual grounding and a lack of resources in and out of homes.
“Environment, such as the things that children have to put up with in the streets while mothers and fathers are out working, and the reality that some institutions from the Department of Children and Family Services are raising children must be addressed,” she said. “Yes it begins at home, but it’s insulting to parents to simply link the issue to the home without addressing the lack of resources for the home, or the crack epidemic, which left many grandparents raising children.”
Reaver Bingham, the Probation Dept.’s Adult Field Services Bureau Chief, told The Final Call there are no racial disparities between those who receive probation and those who complete probation periods successfully. The county has a recidivism rate between 25 to 30 percent, Mr. Bingham said.
Mr. Taylor said the Probation Dept.’s change means a real shift in how it has historically operated—underfunded, understaffed and suffering internal neglect.
Speakers gave presentations on training, new policies and language to help reform the system. The department’s vision for reform targets youth and adults and includes criminal, educational, medical and mental health assessments, increased chances to achieve high school diplomas or GED certificates, help to pass high school exit exams and access to quality classrooms, materials, computer equipment and other technology.
Dr. Darline Robles, superintendent of the L.A. County Office of Education, believes the conference is a great start but children and adults on probation require much more. “When we look at the average school district across the country, we have 30 percent less teachers than the average district. We have 50 percent less administrators and 80 percent less resources, so if we’re talking about true reform … we have to sit down and talk about equitable funding,” Dr. Robles said.
Merely focusing on high school curriculums will not meet children’s needs, she warned.
Attention should be given to family and peer relationships, career and vocational education and addressing children’s needs and the reasons why they enter juvenile camps in the first place, Dr. Robles added.
State Senator Gloria Romero began her brief address by saying everyone present needed to accept their culpability in shattering lives they intended to rebuild. “If we’re serious about rebuilding lives then we have to stop shattering lives, because there would be no purpose to have to rebuild if we do not shatter them from the beginning. … I’m saddened to say that from my perspective we have seen corrections reform go up the mountain a bit but I think we have fallen by the wayside,” she said.
According to the California Endowment’s Center for Healthy Communities, 130,000 children and youth are released from a period of confinement in a California state or juvenile justice facility each year. Half released from state facilities will be re-arrested within two years and more than one-third released from county facilities will be re-arrested within one or two years.
“We want to stop the insanity because not only is the insanity not smart on crime and it’s costing tax payers not only millions of dollars, but billions of dollars ($10.2 billion) to run the correctional system in the state of California,” Sen. Romero said. She said corrections is the fastest growing, if not the only growing, agency in the state government system. California’s corrections is $10.2 billion.
More money is spent on corrections than on educating youth in the state’s higher education system. “Something has gone terribly awry in this Golden State,” she insisted.
James Harris said the conference confirmed many of his thoughts about the system’s direction. Mr. Harris, who organizes ex-offenders with a L.A.-based community-based group, said, “I was happy on one end and concerned on the other, because it was something new but you’re dealing with a bureaucracy so at the end of the day it will be the same. But we’ll wait and see and give them a chance.
“This was a law enforcement conference. Let’s be clear about that. It was their perspective on how to address probation. On one side they’re promoting rebuilding lives and at the same time they have the key to put people in jail cells,” Mr. Harris added.