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that, despite recent improvements, the correctional design of L.A. County’s youth probation camp system remains outdated and ill-equipped to address the complex needs of youth in its custody.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:
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.”