How a diversion program in South L.A. hopes to break the cradle-to-prison pipeline

By CYS opened the Everychild Restorative Justice Center in 2012.Jeremy Loudenback,

When Karina Cabrera first sat down with Angelica,* a 15-year-old enrolled in a juvenile diversion program at Centinela Youth Services (CYS), the case manager remembers the youth’s icy stare and clipped answers.

Just weeks before, Angelica had been hauled in by members of the Los Angeles Police Department after she was caught trying to steal a shirt at Target.

This was Angelica’s first offense, but the teenager from South L.A. was quickly heading down a problematic path. She had recently flunked most of her classes, and her school attendance was dwindling down to nearly nothing. According to Cabrera, Angelica’s father had been in and out of jail during much of her life. Angelica had a rocky relationship with her mother, who offered little encouragement or support to her daughter. As a consequence, the girl was spending most of her time on the streets where she found the support she was looking for, but with the wrong people.

“She was trying to fill the void that she wasn’t getting from mom and dad,” Cabrera said. “Members of a gang were the only ones who showed her love.” When the two met, Angelica “couldn’t envision a future for herself that didn’t involve being part of a gang.”

After the attempted Target theft, however, the police offered Angelica and her family a novel choice: If she completed a six-month program with Centinela Youth Services—a program based in Inglewood that includes victim restitution and therapeutic services—she could walk away without any trace of the incident on her record.

In the past, low-income youth in communities like South L.A. have had few options after getting arrested. Being picked up by the cops for law-breaking usually meant a booking number, a day in court, fees and mandatory weekly meetings for the next year or so with a probation officer. Or worse, it could mean weeks or months in a juvenile probation facility.

But thanks to a unique pilot project created in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Los Angeles Bureau, CYS has given more than 300 at-risk youth every year—and the law enforcement officers who arrest them—an alternative. Building on the emerging science of adolescent brain development, the CYS diversion program is poised for expansion, but Los Angeles County’s failure to distribute state funds related to community-based juvenile justice programs has cast doubt on the future of the program.

The only pre-arrest juvenile diversion program in the state, CYS has earned acclaim from local officials for the low recidivism rate of its graduates. According to the organization’s numbers, between 8 and 11 percent of youth who come through CYS are arrested again in the year after the completion of services. This mark is much lower than the return rate for youth who are processed through the county’s probation system.

According to a 2015 study of juvenile probation outcomes conducted by a team of researchers headed by California State University, Los Angeles’ Denise Herz, youth who are part of L.A. County’s system of probation camps, juvenile halls and group homes have a recidivism rate of 33 percent a year after youth exit their placements. Other estimates have pegged juvenile recidivism rates in Los Angeles County even higher, at up to 40 percent.

After concluding a three-year pilot project last year with two LAPD stations in South Los Angeles—the Southeast and 77th stations—CYS is now poised to open a second program in the San Fernando Valley, in partnership with the LAPD’s Foothill and Van Nuys stations.

“The pilot showed us it’s a win-win situation for the youth and the county,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “If you can help a young person turn their life around, you’re going to save a lot of money down the line. You’re not going to have consistent juvenile offenses, you’re not going to have an adult offender.

“You’re going to have less recidivism. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Using the Miami Model

The CYS program was adapted from a similar program in Miami that also involved a partnership of law enforcement agencies, the juvenile courts, community-based organizations, providers and others.

At CYS, after an arrest, eligible youth are screened to determine their needs, then linked to services such as tutoring, counseling, mentoring, substance abuse treatment and parenting classes. For instance, CYS refers many youth in South Los Angeles to the Brotherhood Crusade, where they can participate in mentoring and other youth development programs.

Adapting the idea to L.A. proved difficult at first. Initially, referrals from law-enforcement agencies were slow to arrive. Part of the issue was that it was difficult to find many first- and second-time offenders who fit the bill. Even by the age of 15 or 16, staff at CYS found that many youth had already accumulated too many arrests to qualify for the program.

Centinela and their LAPD partners retuned their program. Now CYS accepts youth as young as age nine, part of an attempt to intervene earlier in the cycle of youth at risk of entering the justice system, at a fraction of the cost of more expensive—and life-altering—incarceration options down the line.

The Challenge of Funding Change

Centinela Youth Services was able to launch its first restorative justice center in Inglewood with a $1 million grant from the Everychild Foundation.

Jacqueline Caster, president and founder of the Everychild Foundation and a Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner, said that she and her board members were attracted to the program that they believed provided an opportunity for kids in trouble that wasn’t being offered elsewhere in the county.

“When it was first pitched to us, it was compelling to hear that you can have these different results, save money and save lives,” Caster said. “And it makes a lot of sense to deal with issues on the front end rather than the back end.”

Later, CYS used money from a state grant for juvenile delinquency prevention to establish another center in South L.A., near the LAPD’s 77th station.

But long-term funding is a challenge, even for a program with a success rate like Centinela’s.

CYS supporters are hoping that a pot of state dollars earmarked for community-based juvenile justice programs will offer the long-term sustainability that has, until now, eluded the program, but as of yet the needed money is far from assured.

Under the 2000 Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), California counties receive a total of more than $100 million a year that each county is supposed to use for prevention and early intervention programs and services aimed at keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system.
L.A. County Probation received approximately $26 million last year in JJCPA funding. But oddly, the county has failed to spend a huge portion of its money. As a December 2015 audit showed, L.A.’s probation department has been sitting on nearly $22 million of JJCPA funds accumulated over the past four years.

After news of the unused juvenile justice dollars came to light last July, the Board of Supervisors directed that $5 million of the hoarded cash be put in the hands of the Board, with $1 million allotted to each supervisorial district.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes most of South L.A., pledged his $1 million to support CYS’s programs in South Los Angeles. Supervisor Kuehl has committed half of her allotment—$500,000—to CYS in order to expand the juvenile diversion programs in the San Fernando Valley.

More than six months later, however, the funds have yet to be actually allocated, leaving CYS’s long-term prospects still up in the air.

Addressing Trauma in South L.A.

CYS case manager Cabrera realized that she would have to build a relationship with Angelica before the troubled teenager could make further strides.

“She was trying to get a sense of what type of person I was and why I was there,” Cabrera recalled. “Early on, I really had to remind her about my role and why she was in the program.”

Cabrera realized that making a real difference with Angelica would require more than just a quick hand-off.

Cabrera and the rest of the staff at CYS hoped that they could help Angelica imagine a future that didn’t involve becoming gang affiliated. But first they would have to find a way to help Angelica deal with the issues that lay at the root of her risky behaviors —such as a sense of abandonment and a lack of positive role models.

“The underlying issues had been occurring for so long that they [the adults in her life] were just passing by,” Cabrera said. “Nobody noticed or was providing the services to deal with the issues and the trauma she was experiencing.”

CYS Director Ellis said that roughly a third of the youth who come through the organization’s two centers are directed to services that address the significant personal trauma that has either directly or indirectly contributed to problematic behaviors, as was the case with Angelica. Another third, said Ellis, are managing an undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health issue, like a severe anxiety disorder, depression or PTSD.

She told of a youth who had been expelled from school for fighting just hours after learning that his much-loved grandfather had died. Other kids cope with trauma caused by repeated incidents of violence in their neighborhoods or in their ruptured families. Still others have been removed from their families and placed for years in the county’s foster care system where they felt they belonged to no one.

When youth are referred to CYS, a case manager like Cabrera is charged with making a visit to the child’s home to perform a screening designed to locate areas in which the young person is in need of counseling and other supports.

A conversation with a kid starts with questions like, “Have you experienced any loss or has someone close to you passed away in the past 90 days? Have you left school for no reason? Are you having difficulty paying attention at home or school?”

High-risk youth like Angelica who demonstrate a need for further services are connected to mental health programs and intensive clinical case management that can stretch across six months, and sometimes even longer.

Unwilling at first to talk about her past, it took three or four months before Angelica would agree to therapy. Cabrera met with her at least three times a month and checked in with her by phone in between, listening uncritically, building rapport, having conversations about healthy relationships and setting goals.

“One day, she said, ‘I want to have a healthy way of thinking,’” Cabrera remembered. “After gaining so much trust with her, she finally felt that someone cared, that someone was listening to her, and she agreed to the services we both knew she needed.”

Recently, Angelica enrolled in school again, and she’s striving for good grades for the first time. Cabrera has also connected Angelica with additional therapy and tutoring, and the teen is now participating in job training and mentoring programs.

After six months with CYS, progress is slow but, these days, when Angelica wraps up her meetings with Cabrera, the woman and the girl usually part from each other with a hug. “I like talking to you, Karina,” the youth now tells Cabrera.

Teaching the Police

“How many of you think the juvenile justice system is broken?”

Over the past few years, Deputy Chief Green always poses that question to police officers whenever he introduces the CYS program at roll call or in the squad room.

Almost all hands in the room go up, he said.

“Very few cops think the current juvenile justice system is effective,” he said. “When you look at the current statistics, with a maybe 75 percent recidivism rate, the numbers really do speak for themselves.”

Still, Green understands that many cops have an initial resistance to programs that they feel might let kids off the hook for illegal behavior.

One of the pictures that Ellis uses to illustrate the developing brain in presentations with police officers and others. Adult brains use a more-developed control network to resist impulses and distractions. Source: Bunge, Silvia A., et al. (2002) Neuron
Green said that a powerful component in getting many law-enforcement officers on board is CYS’ mandated use of a restorative justice program that requires a youth to meet with the victim of his or her offenses and then to make some form of concrete restitution to that person. This can include arranging financial compensation, community service or other ways of making amends.

“They have to meet face-to-face with their victim, and they have to find a way to make it right with that person. That’s hard,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot easier to have a judge tell you to do 20 hours of community service and you’re done. Going on informal probation–where you might get a letter from a judge telling you to bring your grades up—that’s not going to do anything to change behaviors or bring real accountability.”

The fact that, if a youth doesn’t complete the program with CYS, he or she will then be booked, is a factor that Green said eases the concerns of some officers.

He hailed the CYS program as an opportunity to exercise a “paradigm shift” at the agency, away from a “zero tolerance” approach and toward a different type of policing.

“If we want to make sure that these kids don’t stay in the system for the next 30 years, we’ve got to try something different.”

Ellis agreed and explained that another powerful tool that she has used to get both law enforcement leadership and rank-and-file on board are scans of an adolescent brain.

“The statistics [about recidivism] help open the door for credibility, and then the brain science starts opening doors to a lot of conversations about how kids are not a fixed entity and how we can change their trajectory,” she said.

Ellis pointed out that, at 15, the adolescent brain lacks the decision-making ability of a fully developed adult brain. Yet when a youth robs a store at 14, she may be seen as a “bad kid” who is beyond help or change.

“That’s the big misconception that we’re fighting,” she said. “There are structural decision-making differences in the brains of kids. All of that executive thinking doesn’t finish growing in the frontal cortex until age 25.”

Will L.A. County Invest in Diversion?

Since CYS’s juvenile diversion program began in 2012, it has continued to expand. Several additional law-enforcement agencies have come on board, including the Hawthorne Police Department, Compton School Police, Inglewood Police Department, El Segundo Police Department and Huntington Park Police Department. In December, Ellis said, CYS signed a memorandum of understanding to partner with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, specifically in the LASD’s South Los Angeles stations. And then there is the CYS program that is scheduled to open in the San Fernando Valley, with the help of Deputy Chief Green, who now heads the department’s Valley bureau.

Yet looming over these optimistic plans for expansion is the still unresolved issue of the program’s sustainability. CYS will need $1.8 million to set up a restorative center in the Valley alone.

Plus the existing programs need additional case managers like Cabrera. Ellis says that the cost of a typical youth who goes through CYS’s program is $800. Kids who require the most intensive services with CYS may top out at $4,000, which is still much cheaper than what it would cost to get similar services from the probation department, according to Ellis.
According to a review of the Probation Department’s budget and practices released last July, the yearly cost to the county for a youth at one of its juvenile halls was about $234,000. For a youth living in one of the county’s 14 camps, a stay there comes to a little more than $200,000 a year. The average daily population of both the camps and halls is about 1,600 youths.

Even with the money already pledged by Supervisors Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas, CYS supporters say that continuing the nonprofit’s diversion efforts will require long-term support from the county.

“It’s absurd. This is money that is sitting there dormant and is supposed to be put to work keeping kids out of the system,” Caster said. “It would be a tragedy if they drag this out, and the program has to go on hiatus. There needs to be a permanent income stream.”

For Green, CYS offers a rare opportunity for the LAPD to build toward real systems change. But without greater county leadership, he fears the moment may pass, and it will be too easy for old policing habits to return.

“Centinela Youth Services has got huge potential to build on their work, but there needs to be a commitment,” Green said.

“If funding dries up, then you’re right back where you started: hook and book.”

*Angelica’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.


The Chronicle’s publishing partner, Witness LA, and its editor Celeste Fremon, collaborated in producing this story.

Jeremy Loudenback is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. You can find him on Twitter here.

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