California Community Non-profits Get $1.3 Million to Push for Juvenile Justice Policy Change

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Photos courtesy of WitnessLA

WitnessLA.com

LOS ANGELES — Last week, a group of California-based foundations announced a $1.3 million investment into nonprofit community-based organizations in 11 of the state’s counties, including Los Angeles, through the Positive Youth Justice Initiative.

This comes after two previous investments as part of PYJI’s three-phase initiative to eliminate racial disparities and transform the state’s juvenile justice system to better serve California’s vulnerable youth in need of trauma-informed care.

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This third monetary investment was announced last Friday, at an event called Organizing for a Healthy Justice System, which brought together the 11 selected organizations with philanthropy groups and others to “strengthen connections and build collaboration, and to identify policy opportunities for advocacy and organizing.”

The initiative was launched five years ago while California was “in the midst of real policy reform at the state level,” said Chet P. Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, the lead agency behind PYJI. A court-enforced push for reducing overcrowding in the state’s prisons led to prison realignment, which shifted the incarceration burden for certain low-level offenders away from California’s state prison system to the states’ 58 counties. Realignment — considered one of the biggest criminal justice experiments in the nation — and other efforts to reduce the prison population, were an “impetus for reform,” Hewitt said.

He went on to say that it “created conditions” that allowed counties to “really think differently about what the residents of California were voting for.”

The PYJI, which is also funded by the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, was designed as a three-phase initiative that focused on reform within California’s counties.

When change isn’t easy

During the first PYJI phase, six counties received 12-month $75,000 grants to build plans for reforming their systems for “crossover” youth — kids who were involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Some studies have estimated that 50 to 65 percent of the 40,000 kids in the juvenile justice system have had contact with child welfare through reported or substantiated neglect or abuse, and there are 4,000 kids in probation-run child welfare.

Crossover (or “dual-status”) kids often face trauma, neglect and instability. And communication between agencies serving crossover youth, including school districts, can be patchy or nonexistent, making it hard for kids to access important services and enroll in school. The kids are more likely to face jail time, less likely to finish high school or college, and less likely to be able to consistently hold down a job than their peers who are involved with just one system.

Through the PYJI, counties developed plans to improve outcomes for crossover kids that involved workforce development strategies, building youth leadership as means of gang prevention, and empowering students and promoting restorative justice.

During phase two, the six counties were reduced to four counties that the PYJI directors judged the most ready and willing to continue down the reform path toward a more trauma-informed and youth development-focused juvenile justice system.

The Alameda County Probation Department, the San Diego County Probation Department, the San Joaquin County Probation Department and Solano County (via the Vallejo City Unified School District) received $400,000 to implement their plans.

Solano was unique in that the driving force behind juvenile justice reform was Vallejo City USD — specifically the district’s superintendent, Dr. Ramona Bishop. Vallejo’s superintendent “understood the importance of thinking differently about kids who found themselves in trouble with the law,” not as criminals, but as “kids who should be supported to get back on a healthy developmental track,” Hewitt said. Many of the youth involved with Solano’s Probation Department come from Bishop’s school district, according to Hewitt, so Bishop started trying to work directly with the probation department to address the issues she saw with kids in her schools.

Chet P. Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, speaks at the Organizing for a Healthy Justice System event.

Change comes slowly

In many ways, however, PYJI’s funders and implementers found work with the county agencies to be difficult and slow-going.

During the first phases, Hewitt said that he became disappointed by a “lack of willingness to really think creatively about what youth development could look like within the context of detention facilities,” as well as a general unwillingness to “talk about race and class,” and the effect they have on the justice system. “If you want to have an honest conversation around the disproportionate numbers of kids of color in those systems, you’ve got to be willing to talk about racism,” Hewitt said.

Julio Marcial, the juvenile justice program director at the California Wellness Foundation, agreed. Although much progress has been made in California, there has been a “severe underinvestment in communities of color,” Marcial said. “An argument can be made that this underinvestment over decades helped to bring about this current broken juvenile justice system.”

Hewitt told of how one promising county, after making it to phase two, chose to quit and give the grant money back to the initiative. The county officials decided they would “return our money rather than take a step forward,” Hewitt said.

The marathon runners

Now, during phase three, PYJI will shift from a focus on engaging the county agencies directly, instead concentrating on empowering coalitions of community groups to organize and lead the charge to bring about change in their counties.

Eleven nonprofit organizations will receive grants ranging from $75,000 to $150,000 to be used over an 18-month period, with help from PYJI experts.

Marcial said that, while those involved recognized that the changes are not going to happen overnight, their community organizers are “marathon runners” whom he believes are “going to stick with this” for as long as it takes to reform in the justice system.

The 11 groups are the Youth Justice Coalition in LA County, Fresno Barrios UnidosSilicon Valley De-Bug in Santa Clara, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice in Alameda, Fathers and Families of San JoaquinResilience Orange CountyRYSE Youth Center in Contra Costa, the Sacramento Area Congregations Together, the San Diego Organizing ProjectSigma Beta Xi Inc. in Riverside and the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco.

The groups will have access to a peer learning network, getting together several times per year, as well as technical assistance.

“Every group was selected to be the lead agency for a coalition that they will build,” according to Hewitt. The organizations will serve as a kind of “management center” to gather and push like-minded groups to have a greater impact as a social movement.

“If California is to retain its position as a leader in juvenile justice transformation, it is the communities most impacted — low income and communities of color — that must shape the next series of policy changes,” said Hewitt. “For it is their children who are overrepresented, underserved and largely held back once engaged in a system that should but far too often fails to support the youth and families engaged.”

The juvenile justice system is broken in California, but the Sierra Health Foundation and the other philanthropic backers believe these community organizations to be the solution, Marcial said. “So we’re going to provide [the orgs] with resources over a two-year period that will hopefully help them continue their work over the long haul.”

Taylor Walker is the assistant editor of WitnessLA.

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