Professor of social welfare Laura Abrams was featured in a Social Work Today article about the role of social work in the U.S. juvenile justice system. Over the last half-century, the U.S. has favored a system of punishment that made it easier for juveniles to be treated as adults. But Abrams sees a new era unfolding with a wave of 21st century reforms that prioritize the protection of children’s rights and support for youth and families. “Social workers should care about juvenile justice reform because we need to restore our rightful place with youth who have been in contact with the law,” she said. She encouraged social workers to stay informed about the issues, become aware of local initiatives and connect with advocacy groups to advance the cause of juvenile justice reform. “We can’t consider [reform] done, even though a lot of progress has been made,” Abrams said.
A study co-authored by Laura Abrams of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and Elizabeth Barnert of the Geffen School of Medicine has been honored as a “highly commended paper” by the 2019 Emerald Literati Awards, which recognizes top-quality scholarly research. The study, published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health in 2018, found that children placed in juvenile detention centers, jails or prisons before their teenage years are much more likely to experience serious physical and mental health issues as adults. More than 20 percent of people who had been incarcerated as children reported poor general health in adulthood, compared with 13 percent for those incarcerated later in life and 8 percent for those never incarcerated, Abrams and Barnert found. The research points to a need for targeted health care for those incarcerated at an early age and calls into question the wisdom of detaining the youngest minors in juvenile halls, probation camps and other facilities. Abrams is professor and chair of Social Welfare; Barnert is a medical doctor and assistant professor of pediatrics. Their collaboration bridges the fields of child health and juvenile justice.
Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to KPCC about the proposed creation of an independent commission to oversee the Los Angeles County Probation Department. The plan would give commissioners wide latitude to investigate policies and practices of the department, whose juvenile detention system has come under scrutiny after reports of sexual assaults and excessive use of pepper spray, as well as attacks on detention officers. The commission, which must be approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, would include a former juvenile detainee and the parent of a detainee. Leap commented, “They have an expertise — and I do mean an expertise, I am not using that word lightly — and a perspective in terms of the system that absolutely no one else has.” She pointed to past difficulties in getting information and clarification about the department’s practices. If approved as proposed, the new oversight body would be given the power to subpoena information.
By Ryan Hatoum
When children are placed in juvenile detention centers, jails or prisons before their teenage years, they are much more likely to experience serious physical and mental health issues as adults, according to a new study by UCLA researchers.
The UCLA researchers reported that more than 21 percent of people who had been incarcerated as children reported poor general health in adulthood, compared with 13 percent for those incarcerated later in life and 8 percent for those never incarcerated. The study appears in the International Journal of Prisoner Health.
“Those at risk for imprisonment during childhood need special attention from the health care sector,” said Elizabeth Barnert, principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “The rates of poor health outcomes among people who’ve been incarcerated tell us there’s a huge need for us to take better care of them — both as kids and as adults.”
There has been a growing international movement to find alternatives to juvenile incarceration — or the detainment of minors in juvenile halls, probation camps and other juvenile justice facilities — for the youngest offenders. Many countries are raising the minimum age at which adolescents can be incarcerated and are deferring children to other programs for rehabilitation.
Researchers from the Geffen School, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital analyzed data from 14,689 adult participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Their analysis considered three groups: adults who had been incarcerated during the ages of 7 to 13; adults who had been incarcerated during the ages of 14 to 32; and adults who had never been incarcerated.
“From the data we have available, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why those who enter the juvenile justice system at a young age face greater health challenges,” said Laura Abrams, also a principal investigator of the study and a professor and chair of Social Welfare at the Luskin School. “It’s likely a combination of trauma, which can lead to troubled behavior and long-term health problems, and the lasting effects of the conditions of early imprisonment.”
A key study finding were the differences among the groups’ mental health symptoms. Thirty-eight percent of the people who had been incarcerated before age 14 experienced symptoms of depression in adulthood, contrasted with 24 percent of those who were incarcerated at age 14 to 32 and 15 percent of the never-incarcerated group.
In other findings, more than one in four of those incarcerated before age 14 reported suicidal thoughts as adults, contrasted with about one in 10 of the group incarcerated at later ages and one in 15 of the group who had never been incarcerated.
Among the respondents who had been incarcerated at the youngest ages — seven to 12 — the rate was even higher; half experienced suicidal thoughts and ideation in adulthood.
“Incarceration has human costs at all ages, but with children, it’s particularly problematic,” Abrams said. “Children need spaces to grow and thrive — not to be confined in jail-like settings.”
While this new analysis does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between early incarceration and poor health later in life, mounting research gives experts a sense of the factors involved.
One such factor is who gets incarcerated in the first place — for which research has shown there is bias. A study in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior found that of children with psychiatric disorders, those of a racial or ethnic minority are more likely than those who are white to be incarcerated rather than diverted to the community for treatment. As such children are placed into juvenile justice facilities, their health issues may be left untreated or worsen.
The UCLA study found disproportionate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic patterns in those incarcerated as young children. People incarcerated at the youngest ages were significantly more likely to be male, black or Hispanic than those incarcerated at older ages and those never incarcerated. They were also much more likely to have been raised in the lowest income group and in a single-parent household.
“We’re only now starting to understand the full effects of juvenile incarceration on the person, and from a health perspective, the needs of this population are largely going unmet,” Barnert said. “We need a system that effectively addresses their health challenges as early as possible — ideally preventing adolescents from ever reaching juvenile hall.”
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.”
By Stan Paul
What are the prospects for young men and women who grow up in and then age out of the juvenile justice system?
Research and the media paint a bleak picture for those whose formative adolescent years have been intertwined with incarceration, and may continue to traverse the revolving door of probation, detention and corrections into their adult lives.
Using in-depth, in-person interviews, UCLA social welfare professor Laura S. Abrams and Diane J. Terry SW Ph.D. ’12, who also earned her MSW degree at Luskin, have presented a more nuanced portrait of life after juvie in their new book, “Everyday Desistance: The Transition to Adulthood Among Formerly Incarcerated Youth” (Rutgers University Press).
Desistance is often defined as “the movement toward the complete termination of offending,” yet in their study the authors are able to hone in on the nuances of this process for young adults.
Abrams and Terry collected firsthand stories and insights to answer the following questions: What does everyday life look like for young people who age out of the juvenile justice system? And how do young people navigate the transition to adulthood while attempting to stay out of the hands of the law?
Terry, now a senior research associate at Loyola Marymount College’s Psychology Applied Research Center, and Abrams interviewed 25 men and women ages 18-25 in Los Angeles who aged out of the juvenile justice system. Some interviews spanned numerous years to understand the transition as “emerging adults” and the participants’ “everyday” experiences of constructing lives after growing up in the juvenile justice system.
The researchers said that they looked at those whose lives lie between the extreme narratives that predict failure or success against all odds. They focused on the challenges and opportunities of desistance from crime and alongside becoming an adult — those neither giving up on their goals nor experiencing a simple and straightforward pathway to success.
“Criminal desistance is not an end goal; it is a process. And it is certainly not linear,” Abrams said. The book is the culmination of a decade of Abrams’ work on juvenile re-entry and desistance — research she started upon arriving at UCLA in 2006.
Among the chapters in the books are “The Road to Juvie,” “Locked Up and Back Again” and “Now I’m an Adult.” The book also covers the very different points of view and experiences of men and women in the juvenile justice system.
“The young women have a unique story, and much of their post-incarceration lives revolve around finding and experiencing a sense of ‘home’ that they didn’t have in their youth,” Abrams said.
Another chapter, “You Can Run but You Can’t Hide,” points out the dangers that persist when youth transitioning to adulthood return to their old neighborhoods. Those youths said that they feel marked by their histories.
“We’re all marked. Forever. All of us. No matter how much the transformation,” said a young man named Oscar, whose story features prominently in the book.
Abrams and Terry said that they count this discovery as one of the most important lessons they learned from the interviews. “From the young men’s world view, being marked was partially related to the stigma from appearance, age and race, but was also tied to navigating the urban environments of Los Angeles as former gang members, drug dealers and those who law enforcement viewed as criminals,” Abrams said.
Abrams and Terry previously published a paper from these interviews, “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide”: How Formerly Incarcerated Young Men Navigate Neighborhood Risks.” In that paper, published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review, the researchers wrote about how young men contend with everyday risks — including old gang ties — and complex survival strategies in high-adversity environments.
Abrams and Terry said that research from criminology to biology informed their newest study. But it was the insights gathered from more than 70 interviews that helped them understand the factors that may affect criminal desistance — age, maturity, social bonds, internal motivation, external hooks for change, and neighborhood conditions, among others.
“Although we fully acknowledge that the juvenile justice system continues to create a group of youth who are disadvantaged as they enter adulthood, we contend that these young men and women are a great deal more than their bleak odds,” the authors wrote. They also note that as juveniles age out of the system and are suddenly deemed adults left to their own devices, they are thrust into adulthood and responsibility earlier than their peers who may have access to more social and economic resources.
“Transitioning to adulthood with little support and an incarcerated past is hard,” Abrams said. “There is a lot of trauma to contend with. Most of the youth were struggling with just daily needs. Their lives changed rapidly and unpredictably.”
In the final chapter, the authors recognize the limitations of social safety nets in providing youth with everything needed to overcome barriers to criminal desistance. They call for specific policies for this group similar to those that exist for former foster youth.
“As we listened to the narratives of our participants and watched their adult lives unfold, we were amazed at the ingenuity and resilience of these young men and women to navigate immense obstacles they faced,” Abrams said. “In the end, their stories taught us that all young people have the capacity to reach beyond the labels assigned to them.”
By Stan Paul
Although Laura Abrams and Dr. Elizabeth Barnert come from opposite ends of the UCLA campus, their work in their respective academic professions meets at the intersection of health and juvenile justice.
A recent University of California study led by Abrams, professor of social welfare in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, offers a powerful rationale for shielding children 11 years old and younger from prosecution and incarceration in the state’s juvenile justice system.
“Children in the juvenile justice system literally meet the definition of children with special health care needs,” said Barnert, who worked with Abrams as members of a team affiliated with the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Consortium. Prior to their study, which was recently published in International Journal of Prisoner Health, the issue in California was not on anyone’s radar, they said.
“Kids in conflict with the law are kids that typically have unmet health needs. We see a lot of undiagnosed depression, ADHD and learning disabilities — or absentee parents who can’t support their children due to working three jobs, deportation, imprisonment or substance abuse,” Barnert said. “When we prosecute these children or lock them away, we’re putting them in a system that traumatizes them further and often makes their problems worse.”
The UCLA study brought together UC experts from social welfare, medicine, psychology and psychiatry, law and criminology, as well as community partners from organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund-California and the National Center for Youth Law.
“Our findings provide a rationale for why California should have a minimum age for entering the juvenile justice system and why children 11 and younger should be excluded,” Barnert said. “The study recommendations are based on international human rights standards, guidelines from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatricians, and medical evidence that children’s brains do not fully mature until their mid-20s.”
Added Abrams: “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has established a standard on children in conflict with the law. The convention states that every country should have a minimum age of criminal responsibility, or what we refer to as a minimum age of juvenile justice jurisdiction. The United States does not have this type of law at the federal level, however, so it is up to the states to determine.”
Abrams pointed out that protections for minors already built into current state law are based on the capacity or the intent to commit a crime, as well as the competency to stand trial. California’s 58 counties, however, set many of their own juvenile probation standards. Therefore, “there’s no way to insure, without a minimum-age law, that state laws around capacity and competency are being implemented fairly and without geographic or racial disparities. There is no statewide oversight of these mechanisms for protecting children,” Abrams said.
Findings and recommendations from the UC study and related policy briefs prepared by the researchers include:
- Children should be held less culpable under criminal law, given their expected developmental immaturity, as repeatedly recognized in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
- Children have a diminished capacity to make intentional decisions regarding participation in crimes or to understand that an act was morally wrong.
- Children have less developed abilities to understand court proceedings and meaningfully participate, emotionally or cognitively, in working with attorneys to wage their own defense.
California currently has no law that specifies a minimum age for prosecuting and imprisoning minors. But a new state senate bill, SB 439, which incorporates the research and recommendations in the UC study, would change that by amending sections 601 and 602 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code related to juvenile court jurisdiction. In particular, the bill would substitute current references to “any person under 18 years of age” with language specifying individuals “ages 12 to 18.”
In its first hearing on April 4, the senate’s committee on public safety passed the bill, which was then referred to the senate appropriations committee, the next step in the legislative process. The bill is part of a package of criminal justice reform bills put forth by the legislators in March.
Proposed amendments and revisions to SB 439 can be found online.