Study: L.A. County Must Reform Youth Probation Camp System

Study: L.A. County Must Reform Youth Probation Camp System

Posted on

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:13am

Los Angeles County has a rare opportunity to make sweeping and necessary improvements to the way it rehabilitates incarcerated youth as it moves forward with a project to replace Camp Vernon J. Kilpatrick in Malibu with a modern probation camp model that is less prison-like and more therapeutic, according to a new policy brief from the Children’s Defense Fund-California and UCLA Luskin.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recognized the urgent need for reform and voted last week to speed up the timeline for the probation camp replacement project.

In “Reforming the Nation’s Largest Juvenile Justice System,” Michelle Newell, a senior policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California, and Jorja Leap, a UCLA Luskin professor of Social Welfare, underscore that, despite recent improvements, the correctional design of L.A. County’s youth probation camp system remains outdated and ill-equipped to address the complex needs of youth in its custody.

They recommend that L.A. County create a model juvenile justice camp that helps “youth develop pro-social strengths and attributes, heal from past victimization, build relationships, develop skills, and address mental health and substance abuse problems.” Outlining an extensive history of misconduct and abuse in L.A. County’s juvenile probation facilities, Newell and Leap argue the system is overdue for reform.

“For too long, youth and families across L.A. County have been mistreated by a juvenile justice system that often does more harm than good,” Newell said. “We need a system focused on rehabilitating and improving the lives of young people, not one that drives them deeper into the cradle to prison pipeline. This replacement project is a real opportunity for our political leaders to do what’s right for our kids.”

L.A. County’s juvenile justice system is the largest in the nation, detaining nearly 2,000 youth in three juvenile halls and 14 probation camps on any given day. In 2007, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 81, which opened up new funding streams for localities to improve juvenile justice facilities. After deciding to focus its efforts on Camp Kilpatrick, a dilapidated all-boys camp in the hills above Malibu, the County Board of Supervisors, the Chief Probation Officer and the Superintendent of Education have consulted researchers and advocates to find the best approach to rebuilding the facility.

The authors have five specific recommendations for using Camp Kilpatrick to spur reform throughout the County system:

  • Ensure youth sent to Camp Kilpatrick – and all County facilities – truly need to be detained. The authors recommend striving for a smaller juvenile justice system that only detains youth who present a “significant danger to the community.”
  • Closely follow proven models while adapting them to the unique circumstances of Los Angeles. Integration of L.A.’s successful Road to Success Academy and expanded mental health services should be guided by the nationally recognized juvenile justice models in Santa Clara County and Missouri.
  • Open up L.A.’s juvenile justice system to collaboration and community involvement. By bringing together County departments of health services, mental health, education and probation, as well as community- and faith-based organizations, a collaborative approach is key to successful reform.
  • Identify and track metrics for evaluation. Without a clear picture of how a reformed Camp Kilpatrick is performing, system-wide improvement will not follow, Newell and Leap write.
  • Let good ideas spread. “By using resources wisely and documenting successes and challenges, Camp Kilpatrick can be a springboard for greater reform in LA County probation camps,” the report says.

To put their imperatives into practice, Newell and Leap specifically recommend reconfiguring probation camp design from a focus on command and control to one that is more relationship-driven, emphasizing a “smaller, rehabilitative, home-like” layout with small peer groups of 12 youth housed in individual buildings with living room areas and private bathrooms. Families and community organizations should play a larger role in youth rehabilitation to build bridges that youth can rely on upon reentry into society.

“These ideas are not complicated, but they’re vitally important,” Leap said. “These common-sense reforms will ensure that Camp Kilpatrick sparks a sea change across the county to how we rehabilitate and build a future for these kids.”

You can read the full report and see an infographic summarizing the results. Funding for the report was provided by The California Wellness Foundation.

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Social Welfare professor Jorja Leap and Children's Defense Fund researcher Michelle Newell report a set of policy recommendations

Los Angeles County has a rare opportunity to make sweeping and necessary improvements to the way it rehabilitates incarcerated youth as it moves forward with a project to replace Camp Vernon J. Kilpatrick in Malibu with a modern probation camp model that is less prison-like and more therapeutic, according to a new policy brief from the Children’s Defense Fund-California and UCLA Luskin.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recognized the urgent need for reform and voted last week to speed up the timeline for the probation camp replacement project.