Several weeks ago, I was a spectator in a remarkable classroom. An instructor from India was teaching a group of African-American, Latino, and white high school students about religion in South Asia and showing them pictures of Krishna, Vishnu, and Ganesha on a multimedia “smart board” she controlled with a laptop computer.
As a former teacher and a career civil rights advocate interested in improving education for minority youths, I found the scene heartwarming. But the visit was also heartbreaking.
The class was taking place in a juvenile detention facility in Houston. Of course, seeing young men incarcerated is always tragic. But what hurt most was realizing that this everyday ritual in Texas–in which students gathered in an innovative, engaging class in a youth probation camp–was something I’d rarely see in Los Angeles.
I traveled to Houston to witness the results of more than a decade of reform by the probation department of Harris County. The department has sought–with much success–to make its detention facilities more like schools and less like prisons. Their effort remains a work-in-progress, but it’s clear to me that Houston has achieved lift-off. Meanwhile, Los Angeles maintains lockup facilities that require federal monitoring to ensure youths are not harmed.
When I grew up in Los Angeles, California was at the forefront of progressive reforms, including a juvenile justice system committed to helping troubled youths develop knowledge and life skills to raise the odds that, upon release, they would not end up behind bars again.
But in the 1980s we shifted course. Growing concern over crime devolved into unbridled punitive impulses that substituted for sound public policy. As the adult prison population swelled, the juvenile justice system became more prison-like. The mission of rehabilitation got replaced by a culture of punishment–including, at the lowest points, paramilitary boot camp programs.
Today, as a Los Angeles County Supervisor, I preside with my board colleagues over a probation department so distressed I have had to go out of state to look for best practices. Houston has been a bright spot, and I have visited an innovative charter school within a juvenile lockup outside of Washington, D.C.
Texas and the District of Columbia may not be the first places that come to mind when you think of trailblazers in progressive education or humane incarceration, but in their juvenile justice systems they have become leaders in both.
One thing we’ve seen is that reform can happen fast. The District of Columbia was notorious for having a backward youth detention system, but, in 2005, District officials hired a reformer named Vincent Schiraldi to head the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Schiraldi contracted a charter school operator to take over the District’s school within its detention facility, and the changes were dramatic. Houston also implemented far-reaching reforms in its youth justice system after a series of abuse scandals in 2007.
Now it’s Los Angeles’ turn. In 2010, I called for the U.S. Department of Justice to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Probation Department to produce the kind of consent decree that was so effective in reforming the LAPD. While the Justice Department has yet to decide if it will step up its intervention, it is already monitoring the probation department, since there have been numerous reports of physical and sexual abuse of minors, employee drunkenness, and absenteeism.
Whatever course of action the DOJ decides to take, one thing is already settled: the Challenger probation camp in Lancaster must overhaul its schools. That commitment is part of a legal settlement, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the probation department and the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), alleging that County failed to provide a constitutionally adequate education to youths in the Challenger camp.
In the meantime, we in the County must commit ourselves to civilizing our probation camps. LACOE must lead the way with classroom reforms, and probation needs to change its culture from one of captivity to one of cultivation.
This can involve resistance. At Washington, D.C.’s Maya Angelou Academy at New Beginnings, a probation camp school, administrators told me that probation officers had initially been suspicious of what they saw as a move to an overly permissive environment. They did not think a school for youths in probation should look like a school outside the gates, since kids are in probation because they’re dangerous.
Yet as the classroom transformation progressed–when kids went from being warehoused and forgotten to having academic performance targets which they could, and often did, meet–behavior problems decreased. Initial suspicion among the custody staff faded as they saw fights and other infractions become less frequent, freeing them to devote more of their time to activities for rehabilitation.
As students racked up high school credits, brought their reading ability closer to their grade-level, and experienced success, they saw themselves as true students and acted accordingly. Students in custody at Maya Angelou/New Beginnings earn an average of six high school credits during a nine-month stay. The same students had averaged 1.5 credits per school year in their home schools before entering custody.
In Houston, I was told much the same thing by staff who were inspired by the change from a quasi-prison atmosphere to a school-like environment. “I feel like I’m now doing what I intended to do in this career,” the principal of one of Houston’s probation schools, a veteran of the previous system, told me.
Implementing reform in Los Angeles will involve overcoming some of the same skepticism, and our probation department must be willing to shake off old habits and bad practices. On visits to Los Angeles probation camps, I still hear staff lament the phasing out of boot camp-style programs and voice doubt that the youths in their custody can become productive adults. But my colleagues and I need to re-send a clear message: The prison guard mentality has no place in our juvenile facilities. We intend to create a culture of education to replace a culture of repression. Those who do not wish to be on board with such a program are free to leave.
Fortunately, these goals have many vital supporters. Arturo Delgado, LACOE’s recently appointed superintendent, joined me on my visit to the Houston juvenile facilities. He is eager for change in Los Angeles, as is Jerry Powers, Los Angeles County’s new chief probation officer. Their openness to new ideas gives me hope that we can begin a new age of reform in Los Angeles County’s youth probation system.
Finally, the buck stops with the Board of Supervisors. We must recognize the magnitude of our challenge, and order a transformation–not merely a modification–of our youth custody practices. That means setting a new vision for education in the probation system, one which the chief probation officer and Los Angeles County Office of Education can show leadership in implementing. They can work out many of the details–how our improved schools would look, who would operate them, and what the benchmarks for progress would be.
It is only by charting a new future that we can return Los Angeles’ youth probation system to a position it has held in the past–that of a national leader and model of best practices.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
*Photo courtesy of katerha.