Casting Youth Justice in a Different Light Experts at UCLA Luskin Social Welfare event laud recent moves to divert more youth from the criminal justice system and into programs that help them transform their lives

By Les Dunseith

On March 13, 2018, UCLA Luskin Social Welfare hosted an event that featured two panels of experts in youth justice engaged in critical conversations about efforts to intercede on behalf of troubled young people before they become entangled in a corrections system that often perpetuates a cycle of crime and punishment.

The event was organized by Professor Laura Abrams, chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, building on themes outlined in her recent book co-authored with Diane Terry MSW ’04 PhD ’12, who is a senior research associate at Loyola Marymount University: “Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth.”

The first panel was moderated by Jorja Leap MSW ’80 PhD ’89, an adjunct professor of social welfare. It focused on diversion, a process that enables young people in contact with the justice system to bypass formal prosecution if they meet specific criteria and successfully complete a program that fits their potential needs (such as restorative justice and counseling).

The panelists included retired Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza, the director of the Los Angeles County Office of Diversion and Reentry, who has played a leadership role in recent efforts to reframe how L.A. County handles youth when they first get into trouble with the law. He described the significance of the County Board of Supervisors’ recent motion creating a new Office of Youth Diversion and Development, which will be overseen by Espinoza within his office.

“That action culminated almost a year of work where disparate justice partners, community organizations and law enforcement came together to try to hammer out what became an 80-page road map for youth diversion in Los Angeles County,” Espinoza explained.

The new model will “divert youths at first point of contact with law enforcement and not at the point of arrest,” Espinoza noted.

Panelists Gloria Gonzales and Kim McGill are organizers with the Youth Justice Coalition, one of the community-based groups that will be providing some of the services for the new diversion program. Both have personally had experiences with juvenile justice systems in the past. Out of their commitment to systems change, they have also been part of this effort and expressed cautious optimism.

“It’s at the point where this is the best start to building a relationship between the community-based organizations and the police and law enforcement agencies,” Gonzales said. “But I also know that is going to be a really, really hard new model to establish.”

“We have a really strong plan,” McGill said about the effort, which she participated in creating. “But how do we make a dream real in L.A. County?”

Panelist Sean Kennedy, the former director of the federal public defender’s office who now serves as director of the Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, observed: “I think this is a great start. But, in the past, diversion is often too limited. Too many great kids are excluded.”

Although Leap and the four panelists all said they view the new approach as being a positive development, similar efforts in the past have fallen short in part because of outmoded attitudes that emphasized punishment of youth without dealing with the root causes of their actions.

“Diversion, in my view, isn’t about accountability – although I guess that is a part of it,” Kennedy said. “It’s really about addressing unaddressed trauma, seeking to heal damaged kids, and — and I think this is too often overlooked — education advocacy to deal with problems in the schools where they often first arise.”

Abrams moderated a second panel that focused on the concept of desistance, which relates to efforts by individuals to cease — or at least moderate — the attitudes, behaviors and habits that contributed to criminal justice involvement. Desistance is often defined as the gradual process of establishing a new, crime-free lifestyle.

Terry offered examples from her book with Abrams to illustrate that desistance is far more complicated than simply forcing someone to abide by the law.

“Desistance is a process,” Terry said. “It does not happen linearly; it’s fluid. But it starts with the changes that the young people themselves are trying to make.”

Panelist Harry Grammer is founder and president of New Earth, which provides arts, educational and vocational programs to empower youth ages 13-25 to transform their lives and move toward positive, healthier life choices. He applauded the contributions of academics to the transformative justice movement, but cautioned the many students in attendance against viewing young people only as they fit into groups or populations for statistical purposes.

“This is important if you are going to be doing research or evaluations on anyone,” Grammer said. “If you don’t understand their culture, where they come from, the foods that they eat, who they love in their lives, then there is no way to build a true rapport.”

Chuck Supple, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice for the California Department of Corrections, flew in from the Sacramento area to participate in the panel discussion and express his support for research and policy that changes the ways that society deals with young people who have gotten into trouble.

“We hope to be able to play a part in helping to develop new skills to reduce risk while they are in DJJ, but, more importantly, to be able to build strengths that are going to transcend into the community,” Supple told an audience of about 50 people at UCLA’s James West Alumni Center.

“It’s not just doing no harm, but going back into the community and playing important roles in terms of employment, education and community involvement. It’s helping them to change the very conditions that led to them coming to us in the first place,” he said.

The evening closed with an emphasis on the factors that will play out in the implementation of both the diversion plan and ongoing desistance.

“It’s critical to think about the key themes that emerged from both panels – the importance of paying attention to individual youth as well as the need for lasting systems change,” Leap said. “These two poles are connected, always, by the crucial role played by the community – the nonprofit organizations, the families and the residents – who are all involved and part of the change that is underway.”

 

2016 California Voter Issues — A Lot More Than Just Hillary and Trump UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty members analyze the potential impact of a slew of state and local ballot initiatives

By Stan Paul

On issues that include condoms, juvenile justice reform and housing for the homeless, California voters will be making important decisions in Tuesday’s national election.

Judging from this year’s unusually hefty state voter’s guide, a lot of those issues will have a great deal of impact closer to home — it’s not just about Hillary and Trump.

“This election is more than just about the presidential election, which has taken all of the oxygen out of the political room,” said Fernando Torres-Gil, professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Torres-Gil served as moderator at a faculty panel discussion held just a week before the general election.

Holding up a full-page news article listing the 17 propositions on the California ballot, Torres-Gil started the discussion highlighting a few key state and countywide initiatives and their impact on social work, justice and quality of life issues. “This does not end on Nov. 8; the issues continue,” he said, acknowledging California’s “extraordinary influence” on the rest of the country.

Voting can be good for you — and habit forming — according to new Luskin Social Welfare faculty member Laura Wray-Lake, encouraging the students in attendance to exert a bit of peer pressure.

“The election is obviously really interesting to me from a research perspective,” said the assistant professor, whose work focuses on youth civic engagement and draws on several disciplines to understand social development among young people.

“When young people start voting, this goes a long way to establishing lifelong habits,” Wray-Lake said. “So, if you get into the habit of voting, you will become a more habitual voter across your adult life, which is important for democracy and is important for you in terms of having your voice be heard.”

Citing Pew Research Center data, Wray-Lake said that there are now as many eligible millennial voters as baby boomers for the first time ever. This translates into millennials being one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. But, she pointed out, the potential of this powerful voting bloc is offset by the lowest voting rates across all generations. She said this had real implications in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, when youth voting influenced several swing states.

“If young people had voted at a slightly lesser rate, then Romney would have won the [2012] election,” Wray-Lake said. “Young people really carried Obama to victory.”

She cited a recent poll showing that 70 percent of young people have not been contacted by presidential candidates. Candidates, she said, are putting campaign dollars where they think the reliable voters are, and they’re dismissing young people and their issues, including education, poverty and the environment.

On a positive note, Wray-Lake said that the voter registration rate in California has surged to the highest levels in modern history at almost 74 percent.

“That’s more registered voters in California than 46 other states combined,” she said. “You’ll do your demographic proud if you go to the polls,” pointing out that 10,000 new voters were recently registered on the UCLA campus.

Among the state’s initiatives with health implications is Proposition 60, which would add a condom requirement to the California Labor Code for the adult film industry. According to information provided in the voter guide, the primary argument for the proposal is that “Nobody should have to risk their health in order to keep their job!” Opposition to the proposal argues that it would be costly to voters, is opposed by lawmakers and is largely supported by a single special interest group.

Ian Holloway, assistant professor of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin, said that Proposition 60 had its origins in L.A. County’s Measure B last year — which passed — and is now being rolled out at the state level. Proponents say that Proposition 60 will stem the rise of HIV in California, said Holloway, whose applied behavioral health research looks at factors that contribute to health disparities among sexual and gender and minority populations.

“When it comes to the adult film industry, the majority of adult films that are distributed throughout the United States are made in California and the majority of films made in California are made in Los Angeles County,” said Holloway, who also directs the Southern California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center. He explained that there could be a significant economic impact because the adult film industry brings a lot of revenue to the state. He noted that one of the fears is that the making and distribution of adult films will move outside of the state if the proposition passes.

While the goal is to protect the health and well-being of adult film actors, Holloway said that many in the community feel that the proposition is misguided.

“When we think about the HIV epidemic in the state of California, we’re talking about 5,000 new infections a year that disproportionately impact gay and bisexual men and racial-ethnic minority communities,” Holloway said. “So, adult film actors, while an important constituency, are a very small proportion of HIV cases in California.”

Holloway argued that if there is a real interest in focusing on reducing HIV among people living in California, the focus should be making prevention technologies more accessible to low-income communities, racial-ethnic minority communities, gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and other sexual and gender minority communities.

“If we’re thinking about this as an HIV-prevention measure, then we have many more tools at our disposal besides condoms,” Holloway said.

Laura Abrams, professor of Social Welfare, has applied her research to improving the well-being of youth and young adults with histories of incarceration. She provided analysis of Proposition 57, which considers criminal sentences and parole as well as juvenile criminal proceedings and sentencing. The proposition, if passed, would make a change to the state constitution that would “increase the number of inmates eligible for parole consideration,” as well as “make changes to the state law to require that youths have a hearing in juvenile court before they can be transferred to adult court.”

“Prop. 57 means a great deal to juvenile justice reform in California,” Abrams said. “It would help to prevent many youth from being directly tried in the adult criminal court system, and instead allow them to go before a judge to determine if they are indeed fit to be tried as an adult.”

Abrams said that, without the previous process known as “direct file,” many youth will be more likely to be offered rehabilitation within the juvenile system instead of languishing in the adult prison system.

Proposition 57 would amend the state constitution to provide the possibility of parole hearings for nonviolent offenders who have served their minimum sentence and incentives toward release for adults within the state prison system who participate in education and rehabilitation programs.

“This likely means that county services will need to be more attuned to those who are released, often with long sentences behind bars and coming home on parole,” Abrams said, and that will have implications for those in the social work field.

“Social workers will need to be attuned to the trauma that people can experience with many years of imprisonment, mental health needs, and to develop appropriate housing, transition, and other types of programming,” Abrams said.

Finally, two Social Welfare faculty went head-to-head on Proposition HHH, a City of Los Angeles initiative that aims to provide permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

W. Toby Hur and Michelle Tally, members of Luskin’s Social Welfare field faculty, discussed the pros and cons of approving a $1.2 billion general obligation bond. It would be supported by a property tax levied on homeowners to create 10,000 affordable housing units over 10 years for the homeless, including veterans, senior citizens, foster youth and those living on the streets due to mental illness and disability.

Hur, whose interests include ethnic communities, poverty and homelessness, argued that a tax levied on L.A. homeowners would be less than $10 per $100,000 of the value of a home or $50 for a home valued at half a million dollars, although it would increase over subsequent years.

“Initially when I read Proposition HHH it sounded really good and something that I would support,” said Talley, whose interests are in child and family welfare, as well as domestic violence and substance abuse. “Then it talked about increasing property taxes.”

Hur sees minimal burden for homeowners, but Talley said the tax could greatly affect low- and fixed-income residents and even contribute to homelessness for “those who are barely making it,” she said.

“Fifty dollars may not be a lot to you, but there are a lot of people on fixed incomes,” Talley said. “So it’s $50 they would have to take from somewhere else — food on the table, daycare programs. You might potentially have other kinds of consequences.”

 

Two Faculty Books receive Honorable Mention for “Outstanding Social Work Book”

Two separate books by Social Welfare faculty members have been honored in the competition for the Society for Social Work and Research’s inaugural “Outstanding Social Work Book Award.”

Dr. Stuart A. Kirk, distinguished professor emeritus of Social Welfare, Dr. David Cohen, Professor of Social Welfare, Marjorie Crump and Dr. Tomi Gomory, Florida State University, received Honorable Mention for their book Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs.

Mad Science argues that much of modern American psychiatry’s claims are not based on convincing research, and provides a scientific and social critique of current mental health practices.

Dr. Laura S. Abrams, associate professor of Social Welfare and chair of the doctoral program, was recognized for her book Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, co-authored with Dr. Ben Anderson-Nathe of Portland State University,

Their book focuses on juvenile corrections, using narratives, observations and case examples from a year of fieldwork at a boy’s residential facility to highlight the system’s tensions and show unexpected pathways to behavior change.

Both works provide critical examinations of the history, institutions, and discourses involved in shaping institutional responses to some of the most pressing social problems.

SSWR is the leading academic and research organization in the field of social welfare. In conferring the award, the organization recognizes the “outstanding scholarly contributions that advance social work knowledge,” SSWR President Eddie Uehara said.

The awards will be formally presented at the SSWR annual meeting in New Orleans this January.