How a Public-Private Collaboration in L.A. Is Looking Beyond Punishment to Curb Youth Incarceration

How a Public-Private Collaboration in L.A. Is Looking Beyond Punishment to Curb Youth Incarceration

Los Angeles is known for many things: ubiquitous sunshine, the film industry, and several popular sports teams, to name a few. It also, however, boasts an alarming distinction: L.A. County has one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the nation.

As of February 2021, 430 young people were being held in juvenile halls and camps, according to L.A. County’s chief executive office. Youth of color, especially Black and brown youth, are disproportionately represented in the county’s justice system. Although only 8% of L.A. County’s youth are Black, for example, they make up about 36% of the youth prison population. In addition to racial disparities, many young people ensnared in the criminal justice system identify as LGBTQ, have experienced homelessness, and are in low-income households.

Research has shown that punitive measures like incarceration are not only ineffective and costly, they can often be harmful. An issue brief by Pew Charitable Trusts noted that placing youths in correctional facilities does not lower the likelihood of reoffending, but in certain cases, may increase it. Youth who were incarcerated were more likely to drop out of school and to be reincarcerated as adults than youths who were not incarcerated.

In response, public and private entities have launched several initiatives to reform juvenile justice, not just in Los Angeles, but across the nation. One such initiative is Ready to Rise, a $38 million public-private collaboration between the Liberty Hill Foundation, the California Community Foundation (CCF) and the Los Angeles County Probation Department. The effort is dedicated to expanding capacity and resources for organizations that offer opportunities for youth development and prevention programs in order to replace old structures of punishment and incarceration. The work is geared both toward at-risk youth as well as young people who are returning home after having already spent time in the system.

Core funding for Ready to Rise comes from the state of California. The Liberty Hill Foundation leads the capacity-building strategy, and CCF leads the grantmaking strategy. In addition to the state funding, Ready to Rise also receives foundation support from the Ballmer Group, the Parsons Foundation, the Keck Foundation and the Dwight Stuart Foundation.

“A lot of the money we get is very restricted, and so we knew that in order to be effective, we needed to find some additional foundation funding to complement the government investment,” said Julio Marcial, senior vice president of programs at the Liberty Hill Foundation. “These were folks who… saw the opportunity and saw what we were doing. Their funding was very helpful to fill in the gaps.”

In order to build a system that replaces traditional modes of punishment and incarceration, Ready to Rise relies on a two-pronged approach: offering grants for youth development programs, and providing capacity-building services to community-based organizations.

Ready to Rise grantees include Reclaiming America’s Communities through Empowerment (R.A.C.E.), Khmer Girls in Action, Community Coalition, New Directions for Youth, and Youth Emerging Stronger. These organizations offer programs that focus on educational attainment, leadership, workforce development, mentorship, arts, wellness and youth organization, and more.

“It costs $1 million to incarcerate one young person in L.A. right now,” said Marcial. “Imagine if we actually flopped that on its head and invested that million dollars in the youth development strategy, so that every young person had mental health support, education support, family reunification, arts, and access to parks and recreation?”

How Ready to Rise came together 

Following the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act of 2001, every county in the state is required to have a Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JJCC), which is tasked with developing a multi-agency plan to prevent juvenile delinquency.

Every year, the state distributes around $100 million to counties for youth crime prevention. As the most populous county in California, L.A. County receives the largest share of the funding, typically between $28 million and $40 million per year. Money from the fund is collected from vehicle license fees.

In 2015, the County Board of Supervisors ordered an in-depth audit of its probation department, which found that these funds remained largely unspent. By December 2016, the county had about $27 million in unspent funds.

In addition to a lot of the funding going unspent, the work that was already being done simply wasn’t effective. “When we, as advocates, began engaging around 2016, among the things we noticed was that there was a very stale approach in terms of how the dollars were being distributed,” said Josh Green, who is the appointed representative for the third district on the JJCC and the director of criminal justice at the Urban Peace Institute.

According to a 2018 report by Children’s Defense Fund – California (CDFCA), the council’s spending plan had remained largely unchanged since 2001, even as new research about effective juvenile justice interventions came to light. These include things like providing spaces where youths can feel supported, access resources, build skills and express themselves; pathways to civic engagement, leadership and employment; and strategies that support restorative rather than punitive practices in schools, according to an overview from the county’s Chief Executive Office.

Ready to Rise began in 2019 as a $3.2 million pilot program. According to Green, the initiative helps organizations already doing important work in this space to access funding that they may not otherwise be able to receive.

“It’s designed to be almost like an incubation innovation lab where organizations can receive this funding with far fewer restrictions and hurdles,” said Green. From there, they can ideally grow and find either new philanthropic dollars or public contracts.

The Liberty Hill Foundation sought to use its unique position as a public foundation to accelerate the movement of these government funds back into the community.

“We’re a fundraiser, a grantmaker, a convener, an information broker, an ombudsman, and yet we have the ability to also interface with both the city and money,” said Marcial. “We have not only the grantmaking infrastructure, but also the capacity-building infrastructure to accelerate public funding through what we call a third-party administrator role.”

In 2020, Ready to Rise expanded to a $16 million, multiyear initiative to support 49 youth development organizations in the county. The initiative has also provided public workshops and other support to the organizations that were not chosen to receive grants. Now in its third year, Ready to Rise is a $38 million annual initiative.

Supporting L.A.’s youth

Ready to Rise’s goal is to steer youth toward things like case management and counseling services, trusted adult mentors, mental health support, arts and civic engagement, and education and vocational training.

“It’s so many of the things that we see work on the west side of Los Angeles in private schools every day,” said Lisa Small, deputy director of youth justice at the Liberty Hill Foundation. “What we are saying is, this should be accessible to all young people countywide.”

Ready to Rise sought a variety of organizations led by people of color, particularly Black and brown leaders, that had proven their work was effective but hadn’t had access to this type of funding. Of the 141 applicants, 49 were selected for the first two cohorts.

“We really selected our organizations with an eye toward selecting small-budget organizations and emerging organizations, folks who had been telling us that they were encountering barriers applying for county funding on their own,” said Small.

The Coalition for Engaged Education, for example, works with youth impacted by the justice and foster care systems to help them realize their full potential and prevent them from recitivizing. Its services include individualized case management, academic, vocational and arts classes, along with leadership development and recreational opportunities.

“We do what’s called intensive mobile case management,” said Roberta Shintani, executive director of the Coalition for Engaged Education. “So that’s where we have a team of counselors continue with the youth who have been impacted, either by the justice or foster systems.”

Counselors will travel to wherever the youth are — so long as they’re in L.A. County — and meet them not only where they physically are, but also where they are mentally, spiritually and emotionally. According to Shintani, the programs help youth with personal development and work on both short-term and long-term goals with participants, whether that’s finishing their schooling, going on to higher education, vocational job training or seeking employment.

The program also offers new experiences for impacted youth, many of whom have never seen snow, gone camping or seen the beach.

“A lot of times, they don’t get outside their community,” Shintani said. “We show them that there is life outside of your street, and a lot of times, they sort of wake up. And that’s what it takes for them to realize that the world is a bigger place.”

Sometimes participants are able to get on a better path within months; other times, it takes years. “We’re proud to say we do have one who’s stuck with us… and actually got his Ph.D. from Duke University this past May,” Shintani said.

Another organization Ready to Rise supports is Brotherhood Unified for Independent Leadership Through Discipline (BUILD), which provides targeted violence prevention and gang intervention, high-risk incident response, public safety training, community mobilization, and cooperative activism. Founded in 1992, BUILD works not just in L.A. County, but around the globe. BUILD also has a Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), which helps intervention and outreach workers to be effective negotiators, problem solvers, mentors and violence intercession specialists.

According to Dr. Aquil Basheer, BUILD’s executive director and founder, BUILD is a community-driven organization that works to reduce violence and trauma. Applying lived experience in those communities, Basheer said, is essential, and must be a complementary strategy to public safety. The goal is to train and empower people in an impacted community to create a system and eventually take on the leadership role and not have to continue to rely on BUILD.

One of the biggest struggles BUILD has faced is that oftentimes, funders try to impose their own strategies onto them. “They didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that we have proven strategies,” said Basheer. “It was always, ‘Well, this is the way we choose to do it. This is our perception. And this is the way we’re going to move with it,’ as opposed to utilizing the lived experience of those individuals on the ground and in the trenches.”

In contrast, Ready to Rise has allowed BUILD to use its own tested strategies. “They have allowed us to structure and implement our format in our directions, while simultaneously giving the type of support, both economically and in so many other ways.”

A model for other cities

Although Ready to Rise’s work predates the racial justice uprisings that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the program’s work aligns with what many have been calling for in the aftermath — investment in community-based services and a transition away from punitive measures.

“Our approach to the work was always and has always been to be rooted in community to ensure that our programming is centered in social justice and social equity, with a commitment to anti-racism,” said Maggie Mireles, deputy director of capacity building at the Liberty Hill Foundation. “We were well-positioned, then, to meet the evolving needs of grantees as they were seeking to react to the realities of what was happening… in particular, the call for Black liberation and uprisings for racial justice that were directly affecting the youth that they were seeing and working with every single day.”

Ready to Rise hopes its work will be able to serve as a model for other cities and counties across the nation looking to provide funding to community groups with local expertise on how to best provide services.

“This public-private partnership could be a stepping stone to more public dollar investment and the infrastructure that we need to build to get there,” said Green. “We’re three years into this. This is a model that could be adopted. We can learn what works here and expand it. It’s a lot of different actors who aren’t always aligned working toward the same end.”

Marcial added that although there are many unknown factors going into this work, it’s crucial to take that first step. “If not us, then who? If we are in solidarity and we’re fighting for liberation, we ourselves are going to… have to step up to that moment.”

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